Will flexible solar cells someday power devices?

Researchers at Aalto University in Finland and Université de Montréal are studying whether flexible solar cells could someday be mass-produced and commercialised and used to charge mobile devices and clothing.

For the electronic cells to be viable on an industrial scale, they would have to be made through roll-to-roll processing – that is, be churned out on rolls of flexible plastic or metal foil, the researchers say. Ink-jet printing would allow precise insertion of the dye and electrolyte components.

The encapsulation of a flexible cell also poses a major challenge, the team adds. If encapsulation is insufficient, liquid electrolyte could leak out of the cell or impurities could seep in, considerably reducing the lifetime of the device.

“Flexible solar cells are usually made on metals or plastics, and both come with perils: a metal may corrode, and plastics may allow water and other impurities to permeate,” explains Dr. Kati Miettunen from Aalto University.

New innovations will also be needed to join the substrates together, since conventional techniques such as glass-frit bonding now used in flat-panel displays and other devices, are unsuitable for flexible cells.

“Another prerequisite for commercialisation is making the lifetime of devices adequate in relation to the energy that is embedded in the fabrication of the devices, so that the solar cells won’t degrade before they have produced more energy than was used for making them,” adds Assistant Professor Jaana Vapaavuori from Université de Montréal.

Dr Miettunen believes discoveries using biomaterials, or a hybrid material with wood pulp as substrates for the cells, could pave the way forward due to these materials’ natural ability to filter out impurities, which she says would work well for solar cells.

Bethan Grylls

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