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With fossil fuel reserves expected to run out within the next century, the need to use renewable sources of energy such as solar power has never been so great. Solar power is a clean and abundant resource which could be used to meet all of the Earth’s energy needs for billions of years in the future, yet currently only 0.05% of the world’s energy is produced this way. This all may be about to change as 3D printing technology has now opened the door for a solar energy revolution.
The History of Solar Cells
The first photovoltaic cell was built in 1954 at Bell laboratories with an efficiency of just 6%. This efficiency later improved to 14% but the major development in the field came in the 1970s when Elliot Berman of the Exxon Corporation proposed a new design which greatly reduced the cost of producing solar cells. Subsequent progress in research over the years has continued to push down the cost of solar cells over time.
3D Printed Solar Panels
3D printing is a technology in which a three-dimensional solid object is produced based on digital design specifications. This technology makes use of a smart printer, which creates objects layer by layer in an additive manufacturing process using deposits of materials such as ceramic, resin, plastic, silicon or glass. Since their introduction in 1984, the price of 3D printers has consistently fallen with an increase in their capacity.
In 2011, MIT researchers proposed a novel method of printing photovoltaic cells on a piece of paper. Whilst inside a vacuum chamber, team at MIT created and deposited five successive layers of a material on a piece of paper in order to form a pattern of cells on the surface. The resilient solar cells which were formed were found to function even when folded multiple times. The researchers also printed solar cells onto a sheet of PET plastic, which showed no significant loss of performance even when folded and unfolded 1000 times.
According to the researchers at MIT, 3D printed solar panels are precise, light-weight panels that could be roughly 20% more efficient than flat solar panels. It is estimated that 3D printing could reduce solar panel production costs by up to 50%, as a result of the elimination of expensive construction materials such as indium and polysilicon which currently affect the efficiency of solar panels.
More recently, Australian scientists have developed a method of printing A3-sized solar panels by placing liquid photovoltaic ink on a thin, flexible plastic film. These solar sheets were found to be extremely versatile, flexible and light in weight, meaning that they can be easily attached to any substance. Scientists suggested this technology could find uses on car bodies, buildings and laptops in the not too distant future.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The major advantage of 3D printed solar panels is their compact size. 3D printing can produce extremely thin solar cells that can be printed on inexpensive materials such as plastic, fibre or paper. Therefore, researchers believe that the ability to design flexible light-weight solar panels could have a greater positive impact on future electronics, hi-tech clothing, and even automotive paint or paints used for commercial or residential buildings in the form of a ‘solar spray’.
3D printed panels have the potential to be much more efficient than their flat solar counterparts but it is worth remembering that this technology is still under development. Currently researchers are still working on improving the performance of these solar panels in order to bring them closer to the consumer market.
References and Further Reading