One of these days our fossil fuel reserves will expire. That is a given. As of today alternative green sources of energy are being researched and experimented with. As long as I have been alive people have been talking about solar panels as a means to power our energy grid. Unfortunately, silicon solar panels are expensive, difficult to adhere to surfaces, delicate, and simply do not capture enough energy from the Sun to be viable. All of these problems make silicon yesterday’s news, it’s time for polymer solar cells to hog the spotlight.
Admittedly today’s polymer solar cells do not retain as much energy as rigid silicon cells. This issue is worked on every day, but that is where the downsides of polymer solar cells end. Polymer solar cells are incredibly lightweight, they can be customized on a molecular level, they have a lower environmental impact, and most importantly they are incredibly flexible; thus making them easy to adhere to surfaces that could not stand the weight of silicon cells.
While a breakthrough in capturing a larger quantity of solar energy is still needed from the polymer solar market, small advancements in other areas of their development have been happening frequently. Recently UK scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Sheffield have developed a polymer solar film that can be applied to surfaces with ease. They describe the material as a “cling film”, basically a Saran wrap that can capture solar power. This cheap, pliable material could be installed onto many things requiring electrical power. Imagine being able to coat your home in this material, soaking up the midday sun could drastically cut down on your energy costs.
Another small victory for the polymer solar market is the advent of thin-film solar. These very small, lightweight solar cells also boast the ability of adhering to surfaces that silicon cannot be applied to. They can stick to handheld devices, oddly shaped objects, and clothing. Recently Mekoprint, a Danish company, has developed a small handheld, solar charged flashlight. It operates by absorbing light during the day, storing that power in a lithium-ion battery, and using a LED as its light source.
One of the most interesting current research projects comes from a solar company in Lowell Massachusetts. Kornarka Technologies is working on a polymer cell that can absorb infrared light. The obvious advantage of this cell is that it can absorb energy all day and night; not being relegate to only daytime use would allow solar cells a large increase in efficiency.
This article is not meant to convince you that polymer solar cells will solve all of our problems tomorrow. Simply put, solar energy in total is just not there yet. Many more research hours and dollars will need to be spent before we can say good-bye to fossil fuels. It is clear however that plastic is making the future look a lot brighter.