Cell Mates

    U of A research team makes a breakthrough in plastic solar cells

    January 24, 2011

    A U of A research team has made a break- through in plastic solar cell technology, extending the life of an unsealed cell from just hours to eight months. In the very competitive field of solar-cell technology research this step forward by the U of A in conjunction with the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) is a major accomplishment.

    Jillian Buriak — professor of chemistry at the U of A, NINT principal investigator and member of the research team — uses a simple analogy to describe the “sandwich structure” construction of the solar cells.

    “Consider a clubhouse sandwich with many different layers,” she says. “One layer absorbs the light, another helps to generate the electricity, and others help to draw the electricity out of the device. Normally, the layers don’t stick well, and so the electricity never gets out, leading to inefficient devices. We are working on the mayonnaise, the mustard, the butter and other ‘special sauces’ that bring the sandwich together and make each of the layers work together. That makes a better sandwich and, in our case, a better solar cell.”

    Inexpensive, lightweight plastic solar cell products already exist on a small scale. But think of the roof of a house covered in plastic solar cells instead of shingles or a car coated with them so that they’re providing electricity to a battery to power the vehicle.

    The team estimates it will be four to six years before plastic solar panels are mass-produced. But, when it happens, solar energy will be available to everyone. Getting eight months of high-capacity performance out of the plastic solar cell is a good indication that, says Buriak, “the next generation of solar technology belongs to plastic.”

    Go to www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/ibp/nint.html for more information on the National Institute for Nanotechnology.