The Solar Game Changer is Plastics

Right now solar power systems are based on either silicon oxides, like chips, or some collection of rare earths, like cadmium. These are produced in large production facilities that create a lot of pollution.

The dirty secret of solar is that the pollution costs used to make one may not be paid back in terms of energy for many years. But these cells also require mounting.

Their efficiency and cost profiles require a very sunny environment for quick payback, which is why places like Arizona and California’s Antelope Valley are vying to become the solar equivalents of Kuwait.

Such large projects require equally-large storage systems for excess power produced by day that can be used at night, plus the physical infrastructure we associate with the “smart grid.”

It’s the high fixed cost of solar that has countries like India and China emphasizing things like wind.

But what if you could make solar cells like you do cling wrap? What if you could coat every window with this wrap, and what if it were cheap enough to be used anywhere?

This “super plastic” is also known as an organic solar cell. The scientific term for the compound is PCDTBT (poly [N-9′-heptadecanyl-2,7-carbazole-alt-5,5-(4′,7′-di- 2-thienyl- 2′,1′,3′-benzothiadiazole): PCBM ([6,6]- phenyl-C61-butyric acid methylester) or PCDTBT-PCBM. It’s an outgrowth of “Buckyball” technology, first discovered by a Rice team which included my wife’s chem lab teacher, Robert Curl. It’s a hot area for patents.

A British team has tested the substance and reported, through the journal Advanced Energy Materials, that they can not only be produced like Saran Wrap – spread over a surface and allowed to dry like a layer of varnish – but that they can naturally arrange themselves for high efficiency.

This method is even easier than ink jet printing onto a plastic substrate and delivers a solar system that may not need mounting at all.

The manfacturing method is the key here. The materials themselves are already protected by patent. Once legal clearances are given, this material can go into production quite quickly.

Other solar technologies could be obsolete within five years.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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