Intel Inside Organic PV?

Intel has research underwayto try and improve the efficiency of organic photovoltaic cells, whichcould be very cheap to manufacture but lack the efficiencies inconverting sunlight to electricity – so far.

Intel is quietly doing researchinto how to get organic photovoltaic cells – solar cells made formcarbon and other organic materials – past the low efficiencies inconverting sunlight to electricity that have so far stymied theircommercial development.

Yuri Sylvester, research scientist with Intel Labs in Seattle, was at Research@Intelday in Mountain View, Calif. on Thursday to discuss it. Intel has beenworking on the organic photovoltaic problem for some time, he said.

He sees the technology as holding promise, since it involves cheaplymade materials that can withstand small impurities – no more cleanrooms required for production. Organic dyes and inks can also beinexpensively laid on flexible substances like plastic, potentiallyopening up solar power to a whole new class of uses.

The main problem with the technology is that the dyes or inks thatconvert sunlight into electricity lose their efficiency when applied atgreater than laboratory scales, he said.

For example, Intel has gotten a 6 percent efficiency in convertingsunlight to electricity in tiny lab-made cells, he said. But increasingthem to practical sizes drops that efficiency down to about 2 percent,he said.

That’s a pretty standard efficiency for companies like Konarka, Plextronics, 3G Solar, Dyesol, Heliatek and G24 Innovations that are on a quest to bring organic photovoltaic cells to market.

Konarka is the best-funded of them, with about $145 million raisedto date and plans for a Massachusetts factory capable of an annualproduction of 1 gigawatt of its "power plastic." The company hasclaimed 6.4-percent efficiency for its cells in lab tests (see Konarka Gets $45M From Total and Does Going Organic Require Exaggeration?).

Intel spinoff SpectraWatt,which is planning to start making multicrystalline silicon solar cellsat a New York-based factory next year, is the IT giant’s best-knownforay into solar power technology (see SpectraWatt Moves HQ and Factory Plan to NY).

The most efficient silicon solar cells can convert 20 percent or more of the sunlight that hits them into electricity.

But Sylvester hopes that laying the organic photovoltaic materialsonto a titanium oxide or zinc oxide substrate could help boost itsefficiencies to 10 percent or more, which would make them competitivewith other commercially available technologies.

Depositing the organic photovoltaic material onto substrates withtiny pores – or "ordered bulk heterojunction," as he put it – couldtighten the tiny distances between the junctions, or layers, thatcontain the substance to distances of 10 to 20 nanometers from the moretypical 100 nanometers Intel has achieved so far, improvingefficiencies.

Intel has been working with the University of Washington’s Instituteof Materials Science and Engineering on the project, but it’s stillvery much in the experimental phases, Sylvester said. Problems with theprocess so far include tiny air bubbles caught in the inks and dyeslaid onto those substrates, he said.

If the research can lead to more efficient organic solar cells,Intel would love to put them on mobile devices like cell phones andlaptops, he said. 

(Pictured above is an example of Konarka’s organic photovoltaic cells.)

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