A new generation of solar power, Part 1.

Organic solar cells and more abundant, accessible energy

Everyone is talking about energy.  Cost, sources and the impact of fossil fuels on our planet are in the news daily. With the proliferation of new technologies and the growth currently taking place in countries such as China and India, the demand for energy is not about to ease up.

Yet we are surrounded by the most amazing model for clean and nearly limitless energy:  plants gather all the energy they need from the sun. And why not? There’s a lot of it.  The sun radiates 9,000 times more energy than humans on the planet are currently consuming. No other renewable source comes close to that potential.

Of course, we are starting to use solar cells already  – essentially monolithic slabs of traditional semiconductors – but they are expensive and energy intensive to manufacture, distribute and install. A class of materials for generating energy from the sun based on polymers and organic molecules, essentially plastics, is emerging as an alternative.

The promise of organic solar cells is a comparatively lower energy input in manufacturing, and that they are lighter to transport and install.  The material also lends itself to novel installations, including architectural features and partially transparent window coatings that produce energy while reducing cooling costs.  Since they can be more easily deployed to remote locations, they are also suitable for use in remote and poorly serviced areas.

So why aren’t we using them?  We have yet to solve problems around their energy conversion efficiency and their degradation over time.  To date, these organic solar cells can’t compete with traditional solar technologies, much less fossil fuels that produce electricity for about one third the cost of traditional solar.

Yet what we know from photosynthesis is that nature is a brilliant nanoengineer, guiding energy with exquisite control.  This is most likely an important aspect for efficiency and we need to figure out something similar in our artificial systems

A look at GDP and energy consumption makes the connection between energy, quality of life and economic progress clear. The world’s energy demand will rise as standards of living increase around the world. Energy conservation efforts are part of the equation, but creating abundant and accessible energy sources like organic solar cells could be the game changer for humanity.

In 1931 Edison said: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” Researchers like me at UBC, across Canada and around the world are working to make that dream come true.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 59 | No. 1 | Dec. 18, 2012

Assistant Prof. Sarah Burke, Dept. of Chemistry. Martin Dee Photograph.

Sarah Burke, assistant prof., Depts. Physics & Astronomy and Chemistry. Martin Dee Photograph.

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“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

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