(NaturalNews) Solar panels and lighting displays may soon be produced from devices virtually indistinguishable from inkjet printers, scientists predicted at the recent consumer electronics trade show (IFA) in Berlin.
The technology in question moves away from conventional electronics manufacturing, instead producing solar cells and LEDs using small organic molecules that absorb or emit light. In a solar cell, these molecules absorb light and then generate an electric charge, which is then transformed into an electric current. In an LED, the molecules respond to an electric current by emitting light of a specific color.
Organic solar cells and LEDs are significantly easier and cheaper to manufacture than conventional electronics, because films of molecules are significantly smaller and easier to work with than silicon cells. This means that not only are production costs significantly lower, but the final product is thinner, lighter and more flexible than a conventional solar cell or LED. This means that organic electronics can be produced in new shapes, such as curves, and even be attached to materials such as paper or fabric. Their lack of rigidity makes them more resistant to damage and easier to transport, install and store.
Because organic solar cells are so much cheaper to produce than conventional ones, they do not need to be as efficient for manufacturing to be profitable. Currently, organic solar cells are only about one-third as efficient as conventional cells and have a shorter life span. Researchers are working to reduce this gap, however.
Organic LEDs have their own set of unique advantages over conventional lighting. In addition to taking less energy to manufacture, they also use significantly less electricity when used in displays, because they do not require backlighting. Because each LED can be manufactured to emit a different wavelength of light, an LED-based display has significantly better contrast and color reproduction than a conventional one. Like organic solar cells, organic LED displays can be made in any shape at all, opening up the possibility of curved monitors, fluorescent wallpaper and flashing clothing.
Perhaps most significantly, scientists have now developed techniques to produce organic solar cells and LEDs via printing technology.
Print your own power source
Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP in Potsdam-Golm and the mechanical engineering firm MBRAUN have developed a manufacturing process that allows organic solar cells and LEDs to be printed by spreading the light-absorbing or light-emitting molecules onto a carrier film. This is a technological breakthrough, as previously the cells and LEDs had to be manufactured via an expensive process that involves vaporizing molecules in a vacuum.
The new printing technique is so successful that MBRAUN has already developed a production facility capable of producing organic solar cells and LEDs on an industrial scale.
"We're now able to produce organic components under close-to-real-life manufacturing conditions with relative ease. Now for the first time it will be possible to translate new ideas into commercial products," researcher Armin Wedel said.
A major advantage of combining organic lighting and solar technology with printer technology, Wedel said, is that it allows the production of much more customized lighting products on a smaller scale.
"We're able to service upscale niche markets by offering tailored solutions, as we can apply the organic electronic system to customers' specifications, just like in digital printing," Wedel said.
"The main hurdle, as far as I'm concerned, is the high level of investment required to set up manufacturing," he said.
"My vision is that the day will come when all we need do is switch ink cartridges in our printers in order to print out our own lighting devices."