Abundant, bright sunshine was once the critical component for commercial viability of the solar energy puzzle – until now.
Researchers at the National Physical Laboratory have announced they've created solar panels which are actually more efficient when the sun is less intense.
According to the NPL scientists, this latest solar energy production technology works better on cloudy days than it does in full sunshine. In fact, these new solar panels are up to 3% more effective on cloudy days they are on sunny days.
Dr. Fernando Araujo de Castro, a principal research scientist at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, leads research on solar photovoltaic and organic electronics, and his work focuses on materials and product development.
The cells in question, called organic photovoltaics, are comprised of small organic molecules which act as semiconductors as they're exposed to solar radiation. But the real innovation here is that they can be dissolved into a solution and then 3D printed in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. While organic photovoltaics aren't nearly as efficient at this point as their silicon-based counterparts – they're only able to produce something like 50 percent of the voltage – Castro says he expects major improvement to that output in a very few years.
The material, thin and flexible like cloth, can be printed in sheets, and it's lightweight. In fact, the material is adaptable enough that auto manufactures like Ford and Fiat are testing it for possible addition to the roofs of their vehicles to aid in charging batteries and powering electrical systems.
"Organic photovoltaics work much better in low and diffused light conditions," says Castro. "Even if it's cloudy, they still work. It's not that they are going to produce more power, but they're more efficient at generating power from the light that's available. So they would work better than normal solar cells do in cloudy conditions."
Scientists see the applications for the technology ranging from electronics to clothing. And what's more, the ability to customize the materials through 3D printing may well allow it to be widely adopted within the next 5 years.
"Organic PV, which could offer greater efficiency in Britain's gloomy skies, may appear less efficient based on standardized lab testing," Castro said. "For a long time, this technology received little attention and limited push from investors. We would definitely be further on if people realized this earlier."