Organic solar power.
It sounds good doesn’t it?
It sounds like those three words should go together.
Clean, organic energy creation. It’s definitely got a ring to it.
But in the world of electronics, “organic” doesn’t mean clean or sustainable or chemical free. It simply means carbon based.
You see, most of our electronics are built on silicon chips.
Silicon is a great material for creating electronics. Not so much for creating life. At least no life we have yet discovered.
Organic life is based not on silicon, but on carbon.
So electronics based on carbon are known as organic electronics.
I was a little disappointed when I found this out. I had always hoped organic electronics were somehow alive.
It turns out an organic LED (OLED) is no more alive and no less synthetic than an ordinary LED. It just sounds like it is.
The same goes for all organic electronics. They are simply based on carbon instead of silicon.
The advantages of going organic
However, this means they can have very different properties to their fragile, silicon counterparts.
For example, organic electronics can bend without breaking. Silicon cannot.
Remember all those bendy screens we were promised about five years ago? They were made possible because of organic electronics.
They never seemed to actually get made on a large scale, but they did exist. It wasn’t a hoax.
However, OLEDs have quietly takes over our phone and computer screens. They may not be bendable, but the latest OLED smartphone screens are much more energy efficient.
Traditional LCD screens were lit uniformly by a backlight. This light was either on or off. And it lit up the whole screen.
OLEDs provide their own light. They can just light up the bit of the screen that is needed when it’s needed.
This means they can provide clearer displays with better contrast and also save a lot of power.
This is why most of today’s high-end smart phones feature “always on” displays. They can show you the time, all the time, without sacrificing battery life because they have OLED displays.
But perhaps the main benefit of organic electronics is that they are soluble. They can be dissolved into an ink and literally printed.
This means they can be made fast and cheaply. And this makes them perfect in the field of solar power.
So why aren’t we seeing massive quantities of organic solar cells?
The problem with organic solar cells it they aren’t very efficient. At least they weren’t.
But earlier this month Chinese researchers announced a breakthrough. They produced organic solar cells with efficiency comparable to today’s silicon ones.
From BBC News:
Commercial solar photovoltaics usually covert 15-22% of sunlight, with a world record for a silicon cell of 27.3% reached in this summer in the UK.
Organics have long lingered at around half this rate, but this year has seen some major leaps forward.
In April researchers were able to reach 15% in tests. Now this new study pushes that beyond 17% with the authors saying that up to 25% is possible.
This is important because according to estimates, with a 15% efficiency and a 20 year lifetime, organic solar cells could produce electricity at a cost of less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
In 2017, the average cost of electricity in the US was 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
And unlike most breakthroughs we hear about, the man behind this one, Dr Yongsheng Chen, says it is “already commercial”.
He says the process isn’t that different from making OLEDs, which are now everywhere.
“The physical principle is the same, just a different direction, one is from solar to electricity, the other from electricity to light, the device and structure are similar,” he told BBC News.
What will organic solar cells mean?
Aside from being much cheaper to make, organic solar cells have a number of distinct advantages over silicon ones.
They can be incredibly thin and light, so they could be used on roofs of cars, houses and other structures without affecting performance.
You could even make a tent out of them, which could provide enough power to charge your phone and other gadgets while you’re away camping or adventuring.
They can also be made transparent, so they can be used in windows and inside screens.
This is a big one. It’s inevitable that future phone screens will have organic solar cells under the surface to provide some extra charge.
You could sort of think about it like the switch from glass and metal to plastic. Traditional solar cells are big and heavy, but efficient.
These organic ones will be less efficient, but able to be used in many more places, and at much lower costs. They will become ubiquitous.
And how could this technology fail to gain traction with a name like organic solar power?
It just sounds right. It sounds like the future.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor