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Cheaper solar panels

It’s one thing to instal glass solar panels on a patch of your roof. How about a roof made entirely of cheap solar tiles?

David Jones is working on it. He’s developing plastic-based solar cells that can be printed directly onto roofing tiles. The idea is that large commercial printers will churn out the panels, much like newsprint.

“It means your whole roof can be a solar array,” says Jones, a chemist at the University of Melbourne.

He estimates the cost could be one-tenth that of current glass solar panels, because there’s no glass or silicon, and no vacuum processing. “A few cents per kilowatt hour,” Jones estimates – if all goes to plan.  “This is potentially a very, very low-cost way of getting a high coverage of renewable energy.”

That might make it easier for householders to make money from generating electricity or go off-grid, depending on government policy.

And if you’d like solar coating on your backpack to charge your mobile phone or lap top on the go, watch this space. Jones thinks his portable solar cells could double or quadruple battery life.

“This is potentially a very, very low-cost way of getting a high coverage of renewable energy.”

The technology uses “high-tech plastic ink”, Jones explains. That ink, which the team makes in the lab, converts solar power to electricity. It’s directly printed in many layers onto another surface like plastic, fabric, windows or tiles, and comes in different colours (it can even be made to look like slate). The result – called “organic solar cells” – functions like conventional solar panels.

“The reason we’re doing this is that we really want to change the cost structure of solar energy generation, and we want to make it so cheap that … the decision is made for you,” Jones says from the lab. He’s surrounded by whirring machines, rows of chemicals in small bottles and formulae scribbled on windows.

“The Australian public engage, they want to instal solar panels. We want to make it even more available.”

Melbourne University is the lead organisation in the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC), with the CSIRO and Monash University involved. Professor Andrew Holmes is the project’s chief investigator and Jones is the co-ordinator. The state government has part-funded the project. VICOSC, running since 2007, is developing cutting-edge solar materials in the lab, then converting them to industrial scale using commercial printers. VICOSC is also researching the barriers to commercialisation.


David Jones explains how these flexible solar cells can be used on almost any surface.


And there are barriers. Organic solar cells have two problems. First, they are less efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. VICOSC’s conversion rate is currently up to 11 per cent in the lab (silicon cells are around 25 per cent), but significantly less in outdoor conditions. Secondly, the cells are not as durable as glass – and they have to be tough to be put on rooftops.

“We’re getting better,” Jones says of these problems. For example, his team recently published a paper which showed efficiency was better with a very thin active layer of ink, but printing worked better when the active layer was thick. They’re working on it.

Jones says the technology is ready to be rolled out in small-scale applications like backpacks and shade awnings. They need a manufacturer, which is difficult – the technology is new so risks are higher. Bridging finance is being sought. “We see it certainly being rolled out in the next five years,” Jones says.

And once the cells are rolling off the printing presses, Jones – who chose chemistry for his undergrad and has never looked back, including a stint with BP – has already thought through the next steps. “What excites me is the fact that we potentially have a really low-cost renewable energy source, then you can start doing things you can only dream about now.”

Things like making liquid fuels (alternatives to petrol and diesel) from air. Powering the advertising displays in shopping centres from overhead lights. Coating tents and caravans with solar cells to boil the kettle. Generating fuel for electric cars. And not just in Australia; there’s been interest  from India and Indonesia.

“If we can do this, then all of a sudden the consequences open up a whole lot of new chemistry,” Jones says.


Listen to a University of Melbourne podcast about the solar research project


Senior Research Fellow