Konarka has developed its affordable Power Plastic film with several manufacturing techniques, from an early proprietary printing process (pictured above in image rotated for space) to a new breakthrough with inkjet printers that should dramatically reduce costs, with applications including sensors and RFID. (Photograph by David A. White/Konarka)
This year could bring the Silicon Valley-funded renaissance in solar power we've all been waiting for. First, San Jose-based Nanosolar began delivering its affordable thin-film solar coating, followed by a construction boom in American solar thermal power plants—essentially the reflective equivalent of geothermal power. Now, for the first time, the solar cell revolution is arriving by droplet.
Konarka Technologies, the Massachusetts-based company we first recognized with a 2005 Breakthrough Award for its affordable Power Plastic solar film, said this week that it has successfully manufactured those thin solar cells using an inkjet printer. In addition to decreasing production costs because it relies on existing inkjet technology, the printable Power Plastic cells can be applied to a range of small-scale, highly variable power opportunities, from indoor sensors to small RFID installations.
With printers now capable of producing solar cells, other companies might be able to use plastics and other colors in developing new kinds of power-packing film. But the inkjet process is just one of several different manufacturing techniques Konarka has been busy demonstrating for its solar collectors over the last three years. "Compared to current PV technologies, the Power Plastic has an advantage in flexibility, greater sensitivity to low light and versatility," Konarka president and CEO Rick Hess says of the film cells, which are fused from liquid containing semiconducting polymers.
By 2009 at the latest, Konarka plans to bring multiple forms of its product to market—everything from tiny cells for sensors to fabric-based and larger building panels. Hess says the company is currently working with U.S. Green Building Council LEED designers on custom installations.
Perhaps more promising are all the as-yet-unknown applications for the flexible, plastic solar panels. "We constantly receive calls from innovators who have read about the cells and propose unique—sometimes wild and crazy—concepts for the technology," Hess tells PM.
The burning question for DIYers and eco-conscious geeks alike remains whether we can expect to see rolls of Power Plastic on the shelves of home improvement stores anytime soon. Not exactly, Hess says. "Check back in two years and we'll have an update."