Cutting-edge companies such as G24 Innovations, Konarka, Dyesol and Denmark's Heliotech are commercializing the first generation of products that incorporate hybrid dye-sensitized thin-film (DSC) and organic PV (OPV) cells while continuing to drive advances and improvements in manufacturing and process technology in order to develop new commercial applications, address cell durability issues and drive down costs, as well as increase cell conversion efficiencies.
On the materials supply side of the nascent industry, companies such as Carnegie Mellon R&D spin-off Plextronics are advancing with efforts to commercialize and enhance their ability to produce organic, nanoengineered conductive and semi-conductive inks that are used to manufacture both DSC and organic PV cells, as well as a growing range of printed electronic circuitry.
Their flexible form factors, low cost and ability to capture photons and convert them into electricity both indoors and in poor lighting is paving the way forward for DSC and OPV cells to be used in various and numerous applications.
Their promise was brought into sharper light recently when an MIT research team increased PV cell conversion rates ten-fold by coating panes of glass with transparent photosensitive dyes that concentrated solar energy at the edges of the panes. PV cells in the window frames then converted the concentrated flow of photons into electricity.
The market for thin-film and organic photovoltaic (PV) materials will reach US $3.8 billion by 2015, according to a March research report produced by NanoMarkets. Advances in thin film and organic PV — which typically includes DSC — are creating opportunities for electronic chemical suppliers and innovative materials firms, according to Nanomarkets' research, noting that predicted materials innovations are expected to have a profound impact on PV's future.
Looking further down the line, potential applications for DSC and organic PV also abound in building-integrated PV (BIPV), as well as building and construction products, from windows to paints and cladding.
DSC and organic PV manufacturers see a potentially bright future for their products on rooftops, on windows, and more generally in the BIPV space as government building authorities increasingly enact LEED and new building code amendments that require on-site renewable power generation. Konarka, for example, is looking at rooftop solar application of its organic PV cells and has garnered funding from the U.S federal government's Solar America Initiative, as has Plextronics.
"The big advantage of organic PV cells is that they can be very, very cheap. A plastic solar cell — think of the ubiquity of cheap plastic products. The projected cost of organic solar cells is in the less than US $0.40 cents/watt range as compared to US $3-4 dollar/watt range for other solar technologies," commented Dr. Pradap Haldar, director of Energy & Environmental Technology Applications (E2TAC) and head of the nanoengineering constellation at the University of Albany's Center for Nanoscale Science & Engineering (CNSE).
Plextronics believes the organic PV inks it is developing can cut PV cell production costs by as much as 75%. "One of the most striking statistics that I can give you is this: The cost to produce a watt of energy right now using current solar technologies is about US $4 per watt. Using Plextronics' technology, we believe that you can reduce that to around US $1 a watt in high-volume manufacturing.
"In some applications, organic solar cells will compete with other technologies on a straight cost versus performance basis. But other applications will be unique, such as ‘integrated products' where printed organic solar cells are incorporated into products right along with other printed electronic components such as transistors, for logic and memory, and light emitting diodes for information displays or indicators," Plextronics spokesperson Lori Lecker said.
Durability is the second hurdle OPV products have to overcome. OPV cells "tend not to be stable. For example, silicon solar cells can last 25-30 years. If organic solar cells are exposed to excessive UV (ultraviolet) radiation, even sunlight can degrade them in a matter of days. Leading OPV participants such as G24i, Konarka and Plextronics, are more than well aware of the durability issue. They're focusing on addressing it and can point to recent efforts that indicate they can succeed.