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11/9/2005
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Flexible Solar Cells Make Advances

Strides are being made in the cells' efficiency; still, they have a way to go before they're considered commercially viable.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Researchers at Wake Forest University's Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials claimed that they have made strides in improving the efficiency of organic or flexible solar cells.

Traditional silicon solar panels are heavy and bulky. They convert about 20 percent of the light that hits them to useful electrical power.

Researchers have worked to create flexible or organic solar cells that can be wrapped around surfaces or even painted onto structures. But the best scientists have been able to do is about 3 percent efficiency, until now.

Wake Forest, with the help of researchers at New Mexico State University, claimed to have achieved an efficiency rate for organic solar cells of almost 6 percent. In order to be considered a viable technology, the solar cells must be able to convert about 10 percent of the energy in sunlight to electricity.

Researchers hope to reach 10 percent by October 2006, said David Carroll, director of the nanotechnology center at Wake Forest.

Carroll said flexible, organic solar cells also offer several possibilities for military use. Most experts have estimated that flexible, solar cell technology for consumers was about a decade away, but Carroll said the new breakthrough means that consumers could be using this technology in the next five years.

Using a set of polymer coatings, researchers at Wake Forest constructed a nanophase within the polymer called a "mesostructure." The "mesostructure" changes the properties of the plastic and makes it better for collecting light. The researchers also removed the current from the polymer coating, Carroll said.

"The consumer market would be really open to having these conformal systems if you could, for instance, roll them up and put them away," said Carroll, who is also an associate professor in Wake Forest's physics department. "Imagine a group of hikers with a tent that when you unrolled the tent and put it up, it could generate its own power. Imagine if the paint on your car that is getting hot in the sun was instead converting part of that heat to recharge your battery."

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