Some day, homeowners eager to produce their own energy might not line their roofs with solar panels. Instead, they’ll spray-paint them with a mist full of electricity-generating solar cells.
The new method is currently in development at a lab at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. “The goal is to reduce the amount of energy and money required to make a solar cell,” David Lidzey, a physicist collaborating on the project, explains in a statement. “This means that we need solar cell materials that have low embodied energy but we also need manufacturing processes that are efficient, reliable and consume less energy.”
Current techniques for developing solar cells typically rely on silicon, a material that has already required a lot of energy use to mine it before it arrives at a factory or lab. The spray-coating technique, on the other hand, relies on that ubiquitous material beloved by post-industrial societies for its cheapness: plastic. According to the researchers, getting the price of solar cell manufacturing down could make it possible to spread solar power throughout the developing world more easily. And it could help get solar cells on a wider variety of surfaces, like car roofs, and even surfaces that aren’t perfectly flat.
While the researchers note that their cells perform just as well as traditional ones, the main difference between the spray-coated solar cells and silicon ones is their durability. Silicon-based solar panels can last for more than 25 years. The plastic-spray would degrade more quickly. But if it was significantly cheaper than silicon-based solar panels, that might not be such a problem.