March 15, 2010
Polymer Solar Cells To Hit Higher Efficiencies

Plastic polymer solar cells hold out the hope of lower production costs. But their lower conversion efficiencies for producing electricity require more cells and framing to mount over a larger area to get the same amount of electricity. Solarmer Energy thinks it can hit 10% conversion efficiency and eventually higher.

Solarmer Energy, based in El Monte, CA, is on target to reach 10 percent efficiency by the end of this year, says Yue Wu, the company's managing director and director of research and development. Organic cells will likely need at least that efficiency to compete on the photovoltaic market.

In collaboration with Luping Yu, a professor at the University of Chicago, the startup has previously engineered polymers that absorb a broad range of wavelengths and has made cells that convert sunlight to electricity with a record efficiency of nearly 8 percent.

Stanford materials science prof Michael McGehee is quoted in the article suggesting that polymer solar cells might one day hit 15 to 20% conversion efficiency. That's higher than the current CdTe thin films efficiency (about 11%) from industry leader First Solar. But I wonder whether polymer photovoltaics will last as long as CdTe. Anyone know?

First Solar expects their CdTe PV to top out at 16-18% conversion efficiency.

With so many competitors rolling out innovations solar power costs are going to continue to drop.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 15 10:29 PM  Energy Solar

PacRim Jim said at March 15, 2010 10:49 PM:

It seems ominous that innovative engineers at American companies seem to be citizens of China or India.
Does America produce no more innovative engineers?

James Bowery said at March 15, 2010 11:23 PM:

America ate its technological seed corn when it decided to centralize capital in corporations rather than dispersing it in the equivalent of Wright Brothers Bike shops.

The founding stock of the US just isn't as suited to acquiring bureaucratic resources as are latter immigrant cultures.

There is still a lot of momentum left before it ossifies, so it may be possible to hit some thresholds that let loose the pioneers.

DO said at March 16, 2010 3:36 PM:

The challenge with polymer photovoltaics is no longer efficiency, it's lifetime. Typical lifetimes range from a few minutes to a few days.

TOZ said at March 16, 2010 3:40 PM:

Big Deal -- it all comes to an end at 100%. For extra credit: Look up the energy density of sunlight.

Jack Tallent said at March 16, 2010 4:05 PM:


"It seems ominous that innovative engineers at American companies seem to be citizens of China or India.
Does America produce no more innovative engineers?"

This is an article about

1) An engineering development that may or may not happen.
2) A development that will likely be of very little importance regardless of its success. (Due to the economics of solar cells.)

From this you conclude

1) These engineers are "innovative"
2) American engineers are not innovative.

Kazinski said at March 16, 2010 5:13 PM:

"It seems ominous that innovative engineers at American companies seem to be citizens of China or India.
Does America produce no more innovative engineers?"

Lots of "American" inventors were immigrants, Alexander Graham Bell for instance. What matters is that they are here now, wherever they or their parents were born.

Andrew Guenthner said at March 16, 2010 6:54 PM:

As a polymer engineer with experience in this area, I would say it is highly unlikely that a photovoltaic polymer will successfully compete with inorganic thin film materials such as amorphous silicon or cadmium telluride (CdTe) in the typical fixed-installation grid-tie market.

Polymers for light emitting diodes (LEDs) and photovoltaics are similar, and suffer from similar lifetime limitations. For the LED market (5-10 year lifetime), these have only recently been overcome (mainly via improvements in packaging as opposed to better stability of the polymers themselves). For the fixed-installation photovoltaic market, you need a 25-30 year lifetime, and though progress is being made, we're not there yet. In addition, photovoltaics have to be placed in areas of sunlight, which means UV exposure is a major concern. Thus, polymer photovoltaics will likely require a UV barrier of some sort, cutting out the highest energy part of the spectrum. High performance polymers yellow when exposed to UV, further taking away the higher energy part of the spectrum, and depositing a transparent inorganic material may well require a complex deposition process, thereby negating a key advantage of polymer layers (no need for complex processing).

Although I would not go so far as to say there's no way polymers will make it into fixed-installation systems on a large scale, I will say that if I were a manufacturer I'd be paying much more attention to applications such as energy-generating military uniforms where ease of integration into a complex form factor, light weight, high flexibility, and lack of toxicity are key advantages for polymer systems, but where long lifetime is not such a major concern.

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