Printable, Flexible, Organic Solar Cells Are Coming

Hannah Burckstummer from Merck discusses the current status of organic cells and how to move toward a more sustainable future state.

Hannah Burckstummer says that the world’s population uses our resources too quickly. By August 2, 2017 we had consumed a full year’s worth of natural resources. She sees a real need for change, sees many possible solutions for change, but is completely frustrated with the fact that society as a whole keeps performing the same actions and wanting different results. In her TED Talk A printable, flexible, organic solar cell Burckstummer talks about her new solar technology and its potential benefits to energy use in buildings.

Hannah says that buildings make up around forty percent of our total demand for energy, but a building designed sustainably can produce all of its own power. Consumption needs to be reduced, and energy needs to be created for temperature control and electricity. She says that rooftop windmills and garden hydro generation aren’t prevalent because they don’t make economic sense. Building surfaces, however, can be used to pull in solar energy. Burckstummer gives a rough estimate of thirty percent of total energy demand in Europe that could be generated by buildings there.

Photovoltaic cells offer good cost to performance ratio but their inflexible design is a challenge for aesthetics. Burckstummer shows a typical solar array on a house and says this works for a solar energy farm but doesn’t fit in with city architecture. She then shows her organic photovoltaics (OPV) using a carbon base and mixed with fullerene to create an ink. The ink is then printed on flexible substrates in 0.2 micrometer thickness to absorb the sun’s energy. Using this incredibly thin layering one kilogram of the polymer can be used to print a solar cell the size of a football field. The resulting material is lightweight, flexible, and semi-transparent. The module can harvest the sun’s energy and also indoor light, as Hannah demonstrates with a small snowflake shaped cell that lights an LED.

Two additional benefits to the OPV cells are discussed – instead of adding solar modules and arrays to an existing building or home, the OPV can be integrated during construction and save on installation costs. Further, the cells can easily change their shape and design to provide for aesthetically pleasing enhancements to a building’s façade. Burckstummer goes on to show some buildings where the cells are already in use, and says that this technology is at the edge of commercialization with several companies already manufacturing the cells on production lines. Hannah Burckstummer is an accomplished researcher and great speaker, with very ambitious goals of turning buildings from energy consumers to energy producers, and making solar cells attractive enough that we want them visible on every building instead of hoping the solar portions will be out of sight. Organic Photovoltaic cells seem to be a promising tool that we can use in the coming decades to move toward completely sustainable living.