Climate Change

3D customized printed solar panels

There have been two challenges to bringing solar power to the mass market: efficiency and cost. Cost has gone down at dramatic rates while efficiency has increased with similar success. Together, these phenomena are responsible for the recent increase in solar power adoption. However, even though efficiency for typical solar cells is now over 20%, the cost is still outside of the reach of too many homes. But new 3D solar printing technology cuts the current costs and improves efficiency.

Given the need for future production of solar cell to be more sustainable, a game-changing technology may be 3-D printed solar panels. More efficient, less complex, and cheaper, they can capture more sunlight than conventional photovoltaic (PV) models. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Melbourne, using a solar-cell printer, discovered how to print flexible solar panels that can be produced on a huge roll of plastic, giving them the ability to print cells 10 times larger than they could before.

According to Scott Watkins of Kyung-In Synthetic, these 3D printed solar cells have already been used in India. “I’ve witnessed first-hand how the technology has enabled urban poor communities in India to access off-grid electricity,” says Watkins. “Its success is due to its cost effectiveness and simplicity. A 10×10 cm solar cell film is enough to generate as much as 10-50 watts per square meter.” Watkins last year spoke about the technology during the Smart Villages session of the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea.

This technology can dramatically increase the rate of production while decreasing the costs. So far, companies have mostly produced solar cells with industrial printing capacity. However, by owning the means of production and having them produced locally, people will be able to manufacture their own solar panels and customize them to their own needs, in any form, shape or size. This means that there is no need for economies of scale to get a great deal on solar power.

While installation is the dominate cost for solar power, it is estimated that precision 3D printing could drop production costs by 50% by eliminating many of the inefficiencies associating with the waste of costly materials such as glass, polysilicon or even indium. The fact that 3D printing can take place just about anywhere should mitigate the lofty shipping costs.

Of course, just like most other new technologies, the new printed cells are not without their development hurdles.  Bernie Jones, a co-leader of the Smart Villages Initiative, states that although the method of producing the solar film strips at a low cost has been perfected, replicating the process to other production facilities will require a large amount of capital.