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Print your own solar panel on the garden table

a) Schematic of layer‐by‐layer composition of the solar cells. b) Photograph of the formation of ultralight inkjet‐printed organic solar cells embedded in a soap bubble. c) Current density–voltage curves of a fully inkjet‐printed OPV on parylene under 1 sun illumination and dark condition. d) Comparison of the power‐per‐weight values of different cell compositions and the printed OPV. The values have been obtained for comparison from reference.[3]. Image credit: KAUST
Sometimes technology goes beyond imagination and this is surely one of those cases. A team of researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia have managed to create a set of inks that can be used by a 3D printer to manufacture solar cells 1.7µm thick (if you can call that “thick”!). They have found a way to mix the various inks required to “write” the electrodes and the cells and create the desired pattern.

The resulting layer is so flexible that would be possible to layer it onto a soap bubble (although it will make the bubble wall much thicker, since a bubble wall is anywhere between 0.01 and 1 µm). As shown in the picture they actually embedded a solar cell into a soap bubble. Notice that it was not “printed” on the bubble, it was first printed and then included in the formation of the bubble by just placing it in the soapy liquid and blowing several bubbles till one got it embedded.

The solar cells is printed onto a polymer layer (PEDOT:PSS) and covered by the same polymer once printed. In addition it is sealed in a parylene coating (all this makes that first thin layer a bit thicker but it still remains very very thin).

It is clearly an amazing feat but what is more interesting is that it can have practical applications (not to power soap bubbles). The resulting solar cells have a low yield, 3.6% of actual conversion power (compare this with the best products you can buy today that have a 20% efficiency), but still can deliver a very high value of power in terms of weight, 6.3 W/g.

Such a thin layer can be used to cover a variety of objects, including smartphones and sensors. It has been shown to be water resistant for up to 6 hours and its flexibility makes it possible to fit the contour of any object. You may want to start with the table top in your garden. You cover it with these solar cells, a bit of electronics and an antsna and you can recharge your phones as you lay them on the table!

Another interesting field of application is bio-engineering. Such a thin film can cover implants (using a bio-compatible encasing layer) and skin grafts. It can also be used for robotic skin to power sensors.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.