Cheap and quick printed solar on the way from Newcastle
Cameron Jewell | 16 May 2017
New solar ink technology from the University of Newcastle can be printed so rapidly that enough energy to power 1000 homes could be created every day on just 10 commercial-scale printers – and for a cost of less than $10 a square metre.
The university this week has revealed a 100-square-metre demonstration site to test its printed organic solar film, with commercialisation expected in the next three years.
The creator, Professor Paul Dastoor, said the technology could be rolled out (literally) faster than any other renewable energy technology.
“On our lab-scale printer we can easily produce hundreds of metres of material per day. On a commercial-scale printer this would increase to kilometres. If you had just 10 of these printers operating around the clock we could print enough material to deliver power to 1000 homes per day,” he said.
“The low-cost and speed at which this technology can be deployed is exciting, particularly in the current Australian energy context where we need to find solutions, and quickly, to reduce demand on base-load power.”
The printed solar is made by printing an “electronic ink” developed by Professor Dastoor’s team onto clear laminated sheets using a conventional printing process.
All of the components can be synthesised at scale using non-toxic carbon-based materials.
The test facility promises to speed up the commercialisation of the product, enabling final phase testing and modifications before it goes public.
“This installation brings us closer than we have ever been to making this technology a reality. It will help to determine the lifespan of the material and provide half-hourly feedback on the performance of the system,” Professor Dastoor said.
Because it is so light-weight – the lightest energy generation technology by weight – the material is being fixed on walls and roof space at the demonstration sites simply with velcro.
Professor Dastoor said the lightweight nature and ease of roll-out could lead to applications in countries with poor access to electricity.
“The technology is low-cost and very portable making it ideal for applications in Majority World countries where an estimated 1.2 billion people still have no access to electricity,” he said.
“Because it is light and can be printed quickly it is also ideal for disaster relief and recovery applications supporting displaced people and powering temporary emergency bases. The material can be safely airdropped and very easily installed.”
In Australia, the technology promises to provide an additional “functional printing” revenue stream to the printing industry, which is the second largest manufacturing industry in the country.
Professor Dastoor said there would be a number of applications in the Australian market.
The resi space is a big one, with Professor Dastoor telling The Fifth Estate he already received continual enquiries asking when it was going to be available because people were struggling with their energy bills. Covering a whole 150 sq m roof would provide enough energy to power the house, though the material could also go on walls and fences.
Commercial roofs were another market, for example where traditional solar couldn’t be placed due to things such as structural issues.
How it performs
The test site will investigate how large areas of the sheeting will perform under real-world conditions.
Professor Dastoor said that, compared with standard PV panels, the printed solar was better able to maintain power production under low light and cloudy conditions, making it suitable for applications like walls and parts of buildings that suffer from overshadowing. The cells are so sensitive that even a small amount of energy can be produced under moonlight.
Professor Dastoor said testing so far demonstrated that the product – the encapsulating laminate of which is a PET – was very durable in terms of protection from the elements.
“Even if it does fail from something catastrophic it can be replaced very cheaply,” he said.
Damaged modules could even simply be cut out with a pair of scissors.
In terms of efficiency, the solar cells are currently showing around a 2-2.5 per cent power conversion rate.
However, Professor Dastoor stressed that what people were really interested in was the cost of energy. He said at an efficiency of 2-3 per cent with a lifecycle of 2-3 years it was commercially viable.
He said it would become cost comparable with coal fired power energy at the 5-6 per cent efficiency mark.
While 2-3 years seems like a very short life-span, Professor Dastoor said there was a balance that needed to be struck between cost and life. For example, a more expensive laminate could mean the system lasted for 8-10 years but the cost would increase. The 2-3-year lifespan means the technology is commercially viable.
It’s already turning the eyes of commercial organisations, with global logistics solutions company CHEP signing on as a partner, looking to improve its operational sustainability.
The public in Melbourne can see the technology in action with a pop-up set for the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on 23-26 May.
The first commercial install on a building is expected by the end of the year.