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Researchers achieve promising breakthrough with 'cheaper' and more flexible solar panels: 'This is a very encouraging result'

"[T]his will likely create tremendous opportunities."

“[T]his will likely create tremendous opportunities."

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists in Hong Kong have developed organic solar cells that can turn sun rays into energy with near-20% efficiency — a milestone for the unique type of solar powermaker. 

The breakthrough was announced by The Hong Kong Polytechnic University as part of its work with organic, or polymer, solar cells. 

It's big news for the solar industry because these types of cells are made with lightweight, abundant materials, resulting in a flexible, lower-cost product, according to the European Commission. 

A description in the commission's report spelled out the everyday benefits: The cells "could be printed and stuck onto buildings or placed in windows or cars, turning light into electricity in locations inaccessible to their heavier cousins." 

But, organic (carbon-containing) polymer cells haven't yet been all that efficient at turning sunlight into electricity. The U.S. Energy Department noted that researchers have so far hit 11% efficiency. 

By comparison, most common commercial solar panels — which use silicon, are typically heavier, and are more rigid — can generate power at 15-20% or more, experts from the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems reported. 

That's why the news from Hong Kong is a potential game-changer, as it could make the lower-cost, stretchable organic cells efficient enough for mainstream use. The Energy Department reported that organic cells can be applied to pliable materials like plastic, (or even printed), creating more possibilities. 

"[T]his will likely create tremendous opportunities in applications like portable electronics and building-integrated" solar cells, Polytechnic's Professor Li Gang, who led the research, said in a university report. 

Engineers continue to integrate solar tech into builds in unique ways, from curved building facades and roofs to sun-facing surfaces on electric vehicles

"Their [organic solar cells'] manufacture process (has the potential to be) cheaper … offer flexibility in their architecture, and in principle, they can be more environmentally friendly," Dr. Francesca Fassioli, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University, said in a European Commission report on organic cells. 

The Hong Kong team's description of their breakthrough reads like a lab report, involving molecules, chain reactions, and "crystallization dynamics." 

It's part of the innovation that has helped the experts in Hong Kong find the right chemistry to turn 19.31% of caught sunlight into power via the organic cells. 

And, it's a milestone for Li, who has been at work on solar cells since 2005. But, the team has higher efficiency aspirations. The report said that experts are aiming for greater than 20%.

"This is a very encouraging result for the long-standing research on [organic solar cells] that I have conducted over the past two decades. We have already achieved better OSC efficiency, and this will subsequently help accelerate the applications of solar energy," Li said in the university report. 

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