THE solar power industry could be saved ... by printing presses.
British scientists claim to have invented an electrical material that can be used like an ink and printed on to panels by the presses that produce newspapers.
Omar Cheema, co-founder and chief executive of Solar Press, the company behind the technology, claims the breakthrough could be the key to getting round the industry’s notoriously high costs and make clean, cheap power available to billions of the world’s poorest people.
“Existing solar technologies are very expensive because they require huge investment of hundreds of millions of pounds,” he said. “Many people cannot afford it." So what is the secret that Cheema and his colleagues from Imperial College London have unlocked?
Their “ink” is made from three electrical materials, which are dissolved in a solvent. It can be deposited on to panels by a high-speed printing machine. When passed through an oven, the solvents evaporate, leaving behind circuits that react with sunlight to generate electrical currents. The result is a much cheaper solar cell that is more durable and has a similar density to water.
“Most printing factories have idle time when the presses aren’t being used. All we need to do is rent the spare capacity for an hourly fee,” said Cheema. “This means we can produce the cells almost anywhere in the world at short notice, and distribution costs will be minimal.”
If it works, the technology could be a shot in the arm for the solar industry. Today it costs about 12p per kilowatt hour to generate power from conventional solar technology — three times more than coal.
Cheema estimates that his solar ink could reduce costs by as much as 80%, opening up the solar energy market to billions of people in the developing world.
It seems hard to believe that the firm has succeeded where so many others have failed.
Solar Press certainly has ambitious plans. Cheema claims that the firm will be able to produce between 200 and 400 square metres of solar cells in one hour and 24,000 square metres of solar panels in 12 days.
That puts it on course to produce nine to ten gigawatts a year, roughly equal to the current output of the solar power industry.
The solar photovoltaic and thin-film technologies that today dominate the market rely on expensive raw materials that must be prepared in a vacuum at high temperature.
The Carbon Trust, the state-backed investment group, invested £1.5m in Solar Press a year ago to fund its spinout from Imperial College. Cheema is looking for several million more to ramp up production.
“We believe we can be profitable by the end of next year,” he said. “Other solar producers require hundreds of millions investment, but we need only $10m [£6.8m] in total before investors start to see a return. That’s because there is no capital outlay.”
The company will start by selling solar lights to the 800m households worldwide that have no electricity.