When most people think of solar cells they picture the rigid glass panels that dot rooftops around the world. But the solar cells of the future will be much more adaptable, with researchers already succeeding in creating highly absorbing flexible solar cells that can be printed on plastic. Now researchers at MIT have gone one step further with the development of the first solar cell printed on paper.

Printed solar cell

The solar cell coated paper was unveiled at a press conference on Tuesday held to celebrate the opening of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center (SFC) that was built to promote research in advanced solar technologies. According to CNET, the new solar cells are created by coating paper with organic semiconductor material using a process similar to an inkjet printer.

The MIT researchers used carbon-based dyes to “print” the cells, which are about 1.5 to 2 percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. That falls well short of the more than 40 percent efficiency record for a multi-junction solar cell, or even the recent 19 percent efficiency record for silicon ink-based solar cells. But Vladimir Bulovic, director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center, told CNET any material could be used to print onto the paper solar cells if it was deposited at room temperature.

It will still be some time before solar cells can be installed with a staple gun, however, as the paper variety are still in the research phase and are years from being commercialized.

Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center (SFC)

The printed solar cells were just one of the new technologies that have already resulted from the alliance between MIT and Italian multinational oil and gas company Eni, which was signed in February 2008. That alliance was followed by the announcement in July 2008 of the Eni-MIT SFC that promotes research in advanced solar technologies through projects ranging from new materials to hydrogen production from solar energy.

The first two years of the Eni-MIT alliance has also seen other significant breakthroughs including:

  • Construction of the first ultra-flexible solar cell;
  • Advances in the production of virus-based metal contacts for solar cells;
  • Development of solar cells that mimic the photosynthetic process;
  • Advances in the understanding of how photosynthesis splits water molecules;
  • Construction of a prototype to maximize return on investment in solar thermal plants using parabolic mirrors for sustainable deployment of concentrating solar power.

The alliance between Eni and MIT has a duration of five years and involves a financial commitment from Eni for US$50 million in total, equally distributed between the Solar Frontiers program and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) – so we should be able to look forward to even more breakthroughs in the coming years.

Via: CNET.