A new study from England suggests that thin, flexible material placed over a large area – much like cling film – can be used to produce more efficient solar cells. This simple and inexpensive manufacturing method, developed by scientists from the universities of Sheffield and Cambridge and reported in the journal Advanced Energy Materials, could revolutionize the way solar cells are made, using polymer (plastic) instead of pricier silicon, and boosting development of solar power.

This film technique was discovered when a mixture of molecules was spread over a surface, much like painting a wall, or a printer laying ink on paper. Scientists noted that the molecules separated, with some rising to the top of the layer and some sinking to the bottom, and in doing so maximized the efficiency of the resulting solar cell. The layers were studied at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory using a neutron beam and X-rays to determine the most efficient combination of molecules.

image via Science and Technology Facilities Council

“Our results give important insights into how ultra-cheap solar energy panels for domestic and industrial use can be manufactured on a large scale,” said Andrew Parnell of the University of Sheffield. He noted that the solar cell film, which is over 1,000 times thinner than human hair, would be lightweight and easy to transport.

The project has far-reaching implications, and the scientists are well aware of the need for inexpensive, clean alternatives to fossil fuels in a time of climate change concerns and resource depletion. Professor Richard Jones of the University of Sheffield believes that solar energy is the most viable option. “In a couple of hours enough energy from sunlight falls on the Earth to satisfy the energy needs of Earth for a whole year,” he said. “Cheap and efficient polymer solar cells that cover huge areas could help us move into a new age of renewable energy.”

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