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Lee Press On solar panels

Published by The Editors | Filed under photovoltaic

While not as easy to apply as fake nails, several startups are working on photovoltaic panels that are cheaper to manufacture, lighter, and easier to install than traditional solar panels. HelioVolt, Miasolé, Nanosolar and Konarko are working on thin film technology, which layer the power grabbing stuff (to use the unscientific term) over film or foil.

Most thin-film makers layer different electron-gathering materials evenly over a piece of foil. The process can be tricky – any imperfections can reduce the effectiveness of the product. Nanosolar’s breakthrough was to use nanotechnology – manufacturing on the molecular level – to create an ink with the crucial materials already mixed together. This ink can be cheaply printed on rolls of thin foil.

Sure, solar chips have been used to power calculators, watches, and other small gadgets for years. But most are made of silicon, the material found in computer chips – and they are rigid, fragile, and expensive to manufacture. (Think clean rooms with skilled techies in space suits.) Konarka’s film rolls off a converted printing press that used to belong to Polaroid. It prints a secret plastic ink onto rolls of thin film. As it absorbs light, the polymer ink emits electrons, producing electricity.

Let’s not throw out traditional photovoltaic panels just yet. Thin film does have some drawbacks:

Power Plastic, however, does have its drawbacks. So far it is not nearly as efficient or durable as traditional silicon panels. Konarka’s cells convert about 6% of the light that hits them into electricity, whereas silicon solar panels typically are 16% to 20% efficient. Hess says Konarka hopes to double its efficiency within a few years. Power Plastic also doesn’t last nearly as long – about five years as opposed to more than 30 with silicon panels. But Hess argues that it doesn’t matter because his product will be cheap to replace.

Still, to us, this stuff looks promising. Sign us up to test the clothing that Konarko is going to weave their cells into.

Key Stats: U.S. national average cost for electricity production is 10.4 cents per kilowatt hour.

Resources: Fortune - Plastic Power
Fortune - Hot Thin Roofs

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