Organic photovoltaics make industrial debut

Flexible photovoltaic (PV) panels already exist and they’re already on backpacks, jackets, pants—well probably not pants. They’re obvious, sometimes silly looking, geek patches on the outside of things. However, a new form of PV called organic photovoltaics is about to make them obsolete. Manufacturers can weave, dye, or spray organic PVs into fabrics, signs, windows, and more—invisibly. So your clothes could power all sorts of small electronics—maybe even keep you cool. Combining invisible organic PVs and programmable light-emitting diodes (LEDs), could create clothing that’s a work of video art, self-illuminating curtains and walls…or a digital billboard.

Turning clothes into a solar-powered billboard on the Vegas strip to promote the latest Cirque De Sole show, or the Bunny Ranch, might seem like a waste of cutting-edge technology, but its not the only use for PV fabrics. The Natick Soldier Systems Center of the U.S. Army is looking into photovoltaic fabrics as a lightweight means to power communications devices and soldiers’ combat computers. They also may incorporate organic PV into shade tents to provide power for operations while soldiers are resting.

The Army is interested in organic photovoltaics because they’re lightweight and they naturally degrade within a few years. And these fabrics can enable the Army to produce energy without using heavy generators or batteries.

It’s possible because scientists were able to create flexible, organic-polymer-based photovoltaics. That means PVs without silicon or metals. Rather developers made carbon-based solar cells with inorganic photoreactive compounds that are incredibly versatile in their applications. Because they’re made of carbon, they’re also very cheaply produced. However, organic PVs don’t have the lifespan or the efficiency of thin-film or silicon-based PVs cells.

But this makes them ideal for many applications like badges, identification cards and other potentially disposable items that need to have expiration dates.

Organic PVs weren’t ready for market until recently because they were only able to convert about 2 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, not enough to provide any meaningful energy. But Solarmer Energy achieved 7.9 percent conversion efficiency in February 2010, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which tested their products. Solarmer plans to start producing solar fabrics later in 2010.

Konarka Technologies has developed a PV wire that transmits electricity and is woven into fabrics. Konarka is working with other companies and the armed forces to bring its technology to the consumer and industrial markets.

While us civilians might not need PV to save our lives or keep us in contact in dire situations, we can buy PV-integrated bags and coats to charge our portable electric devices, like mp3 players, smart phones, and laptops—in two or three years, those devices can potentially be charged simply by being in your solar-coated briefcase.