The Efficiency of Organic Solar Panels
Solar panels composed of organic materials like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, fluorine, oxygen, and sulfur have been around since 1954 and feature a lot of advantages.
Besides being easy to recycle, the materials are cheap and abundant. So organic solar cells are actually cheaper to produce than the silicon-based ones in commercial use today. They’re also lighter and more flexible, making them easier to transport and install as well as less prone to damage.
Despite all these advantages, however, there’s one crucial factor that’s stopped them from becoming commercially viable – efficiency.
The most efficient solar panels currently on the market are rated at close to 23%, meaning that 23% of the power contained in the sunlight that hits them gets converted to electricity.
But squeezing out those last few percentage points of efficiency is expensive. So maximally-efficient panels don’t turn out to be very efficient at all from an economic perspective. As a result, most solar panels currently used in home systems are rated between 15% and 20%.
The first organic solar cells, on the other hand, were only 6% efficient. And scientists have struggled to create a purely organic one that’s anywhere close to the 20% mark.
The Breakthrough In Organic Solar Cells
A group of Lithuanian scientists in Saudi Arabia just announced they’ve constructed a completely organic solar cell with a record-breaking 18.4% efficiency.
The seed for their ground-breaking discovery was planted in 2018.
Lithuanian researchers at Saudi Arabia’s Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) produced a material which self-assembles into a molecular-thin layer. Their invention binds easily to a wide-variety of surfaces and creates the electricity-generating middle slice between the top and bottom oppositely charged layers of a solar cell.
Their remarkable discovery was first used to create highly efficient solar cells composed of a semi-organic material known as perovskite.
But further developments by Lithuanian scientists at another Saudi Arabian institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), led to last week’s break-through announcement.
As KTU’s, Dr. Artiom Magomedov explained:
“Last year, we noticed an article published by researchers from KAUST, where they described the remarkably high efficiency of an organic solar cell they achieved with our self-assembling molecules. We contacted the scientists and offered to collaborate in enhancing the capacities of the material. Due to the pandemic restrictions, all cooperation was remote – we sent the synthesized materials by post and our colleagues in Saudi Arabia built the organic solar cells and measured their properties.”
The Future of Organic Solar Panels
We’ve probably still got a bit of wait before organic solar panels hit the commercial market.
Unfortunately, the same properties that make them easy to recycle also means they degrade quickly when exposed to oxygen. If they aren’t completely sealed off from air the organic materials can start to significantly decay in a matter of hours, raising manufacturing costs.
Finding an efficient way to mass-produce Dr. Mamedov’s self-assembling monolayers will also be crucial to making organic solar panels commercially viable.
But there’s no question that his team’s ground-breaking invention of an organic solar cell that rivals today’s commercially available inorganic panels in efficiency means we’re much closer to the inevitable day when solar power will be even more environmentally friendly.