Why Plastic Solar Cells Could Become a Very Big Deal

Professor Plastics

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Bulb with of solar panel in hands on green background

One of the things I love about plastics is their ability to modernize or revolutionize existing products. Think: air bags in cars. Boeing’s new Dreamliner airplane made with plastic composites. Today’s tennis rackets made with carbon fiber-reinforced plastics—I mean, are wood tennis rackets even for sale anymore?

There are tons of examples, but I’m especially excited about a budding new product: solar cells made with plastics. That’s because plastic solar cells may have the potential to revolutionize and democratize the way we collect and distribute energy from the sun.

Today’s Solar Cells

Silicon remains the predominant material for solar cells because its structure helps create a significant photovoltaic effect. (Cue the blank stares from my students.) That’s just a fancy term my colleagues in the physics department use. Simply put, the sun’s light causes electrons to move through the solar cell material, which produces an electrical current.

Silicon solar cells allow these “excited electrons” to move more efficiently than most other materials. But silicon solar cells also have their challenges, particularly their cost.

Advances in Plastic Solar Cells

And now let’s talk about plastics and solar cells. While there have been many advances over the past few years, recent discoveries may lead to significant improvements in the technology of solar cells made with plastics. For example, researchers have found that they can manipulate the molecules in certain plastics to create ordered pathways—or “nanowires”—along which electrical charges can travel more efficiently.

These types of advances could enable the versatility of plastics to open up new possibilities for solar technology. Plastics used in solar cells can be flexible, lightweight, and extremely thin, so plastic solar cells potentially could be printed onto walls, windows, and a variety of other surfaces—including curved ones.

Plus, plastic solar cells are expected to become significantly more affordable than existing solar cells, which could make renewable energy available to many more people, homes, and businesses.

What the Future Holds for Plastic Solar Cells

We’re not there yet. New technologies take time and don’t always pan out as hoped. But some industry insiders are suggesting that Silicon Valley’s next big tech innovation will be to integrate plastic solar cells into our everyday lives. Some experts predict that not only our homes but also our mobile devices and wearable technology could be powered by plastic solar cells in the not-too-distant future.

That would be cool. I already can see my students becoming as excited about this as those electrons.