In a significant clean energy breakthrough, scientists from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have spearheaded international research to achieve a new efficiency record for fully roll-to-roll printed solar cells.

This revolutionary technology, featuring lightweight, flexible solar cells printed onto thin plastic films, promises to expand the potential applications of solar energy significantly. 

A new era in solar cell flexibility and deployment

Unlike traditional silicon solar panels, which are rigid and heavy, printed solar cells boast exceptional flexibility and portability. This revolutionary technology opens up a wide array of previously unimaginable applications, allowing for deployment in previously unimaginable ways across urban construction, mining operations, emergency management, disaster relief, space, defence, and personal electronics. 

The team with thin and lightweight roll-to-roll solar cells. Image: CSIRO.

CSIRO’s Renewable Energy Systems group leader, Dr Anthony Chesman, highlighted the culmination of CSIRO’s extensive years, almost a decade of research: “CSIRO’s thin and lightweight solar cells are now on the cusp of emerging from the lab to create clean energy in the real world…We’ve solved several engineering problems to achieve record results across a large surface area of interconnected modules.” 

Roll-to-roll printing: The key to scalability

The record-breaking efficiency was realised through roll-to-roll printing, enabling large-scale production. “Roll-to-roll printing allows for the cells to be manufactured on very long, continuous rolls of plastic, which can dramatically increase the rate of production,” said Dr Chesman.

“As these methods are already widely used in the printing industry, this makes their production more accessible for Australian manufacturers. The successful commercialisation of printed flexible solar cells has the potential to create significant economic and environmental benefits for Australia and the world.” 

Schematic illustration of the workflow of this work. Image: Nature Communications.

Advanced materials and machine learning

In addition to roll-to-roll printing, CSIRO’s innovative approach incorporates an advanced material called perovskite. Dr Doojin Vak, CSIRO principal research scientist, said: “Perovskites are a class of emerging cell material. They’re remarkable because they can be formulated into inks and used in industrial printers.” 

The optimisation process also leveraged automation and machine learning. “We developed a system for rapidly producing and testing more than 10,000 solar cells a day – something that would have been impossible to do manually,” said Dr Vak. “This allowed us to identify the optimal settings for the various parameters in the roll-to-roll process and quickly pinpoint the conditions that deliver the best results.” 

The future of printed solar

Researchers acknowledge that perovskite solar cells currently trail silicon solar panels in terms of efficiency and lifetime. However, CSIRO envisions a unique role for its printed solar technology.

“As these perovskite solar cells are printed onto plastic films, they are very lightweight, highly flexible, and portable,” said Dr Chesman. “The rigidity and weight of conventional silicon solar panels can make moving them difficult. Our thin, lightweight solar can be easily transported anywhere there is sun.” 

CSIRO is actively seeking industry partners to refine this revolutionary technology further and bring it to market.

The University of Cambridge, Monash University, the University of Sydney, and the University of New South Wales collaborated to achieve these results, which they published in the journal Nature Communications.