July 21, 2007
Carbon Nanotubes And Fullerenes Make Paintable Photovoltaics

Some day we'll be able to paint outside surfaces in order to turn them into solar photovoltaic electric power generators.

Researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) have developed an inexpensive solar cell that can be painted or printed on flexible plastic sheets. “The process is simple,” said lead researcher and author Somenath Mitra, PhD, professor and acting chair of NJIT’s Department of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences. “Someday homeowners will even be able to print sheets of these solar cells with inexpensive home-based inkjet printers. Consumers can then slap the finished product on a wall, roof or billboard to create their own power stations.”

“Fullerene single wall carbon nanotube complex for polymer bulk heterojunction photovoltaic cells,” featured as the June 21, 2007 cover story of the Journal of Materials Chemistry published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, details the process. The Society, based at Oxford University, is the British equivalent of the American Chemical Society.

These solar cells are built out of carbon nanotubes and carbon fullerenes.

The solar cell developed at NJIT uses a carbon nanotubes complex, which by the way, is a molecular configuration of carbon in a cylindrical shape. The name is derived from the tube’s miniscule size. Scientists estimate nanotubes to be 50,000 times smaller than a human hair. Nevertheless, just one nanotube can conduct current better than any conventional electrical wire. “Actually, nanotubes are significantly better conductors than copper,” Mitra added.

Mitra and his research team took the carbon nanotubes and combined them with tiny carbon Buckyballs (known as fullerenes) to form snake-like structures. Buckyballs trap electrons, although they can’t make electrons flow. Add sunlight to excite the polymers, and the buckyballs will grab the electrons. Nanotubes, behaving like copper wires, will then be able to make the electrons or current flow.

Does Mitra argue this approach is cheap because it is cheap already? Or does his approach depend on the eventual development of much cheaper ways to produce nanotubes or buckyballs? Does anyone know what the state of the play is for creation of carbon nanomaterials on an industrial scale?

If this stuff becomes cheap enough then it would not matter that the carbon bonds gradually break down due to UV light hitting them. One could just repaint surfaces every 7 or 10 years. Note that car and house paint can last that long and longer.

Cheap photovoltaics will make mid day electricity much cheaper than late afternoon and evening electricity. We need dynamic electric pricing in order to use photovoltaic electricity efficiently. We have plenty of ways to shift our demand around in a 24 period or even between seasons in some cases. Cheap photovoltaics might lead electric intensive industries such as aluminum to shift the bulk of their processing to spring and summer and into areas such as Arizona which have the most sunlight.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 July 21 10:31 PM  Energy Solar

Randall Parker said at July 22, 2007 12:46 PM:

Michel Petit,

Sure, some nanotubes might cause damage to our bodies. We might need to coat surfaces such as roofs and sidings with nanotubes in airtight manufacturing facilities. But once coated it might be possible to bind the nanotubes to the surfaces so that they do not come off in the air.

Bob Badour said at July 23, 2007 8:10 AM:


I seriously doubt aluminum production will ever move to Arizona. The aluminum industry in Quebec feeds off marine freight for delivering bauxite and alumina as well as relatively cheap hydroelectric.

Australia has large supplies of ore, so you might see some production move to the coastal areas of the outback, though.

Kralizec said at July 26, 2007 5:21 PM:

Reading postings about electric vehicles, photovoltaic materials, and land-use issues in the generation of electricity prompts the thought that the land for highways, already covered by artificial structures, could serve dual uses if photovoltaics could either be safely made part of the surface of the road or if photovoltaic structures could be build over the roads. I'm recording this "brainstorm" just minutes after its arrival, and I won't be surprised or offended if someone shows (politely) that it's farfetched or proveably unworkable.

Also, in line with Randall's thought that wind turbines and crops could coexist, I wonder whether the function of the U.S.'s tens of thousands of miles of rural, divided highways would be impaired noticeably by placement of turbines on the median. I'd look up the figures and do the calculations required to estimate the megawattage so many linear miles of turbines might generate, but I think Randall would be disappointed at my not having left that investigation and speculation for him.

Randall Parker said at July 26, 2007 8:12 PM:


First off, we won't need as wide of lanes and as many lanes when computers can link cars together to travel closely together drafting off each other to reduce energy loss from friction.

Also, railroad tracks are especially suitable as photovoltaic surfaces because only the rails get ridden on by wheels. The problem with car roads is that cars shift between lanes. We need cars that can convert to ride on rails. That'd lower frictional loss and reduce accidents as once on a pair of rails they couldn't cross lanes when drivers fall asleep or drive drunk.

We should be able to build better vehicles that are hybrid from the standpoint of what wheel systems they use. Once we get nanomaterials that are light, strong, and easily reshaped I can imagine cars that can fit themselves to rails on highways and then shift to an off-rail mode to get off an an exit. Well, the pure-rail stretches could have photovoltaics in between the rails.

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