Plastics put solar on the verge, again

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In what was once a Polaroid factory 50 miles south of Boston, a high-tech company is printing sheets of solar cells made of plastic, trying to create tomorrow’s energy source amid the tumult of today’s energy market.

Scientists in university and private labs worldwide have raced to make these plastic solar cells practical for 30 years. A recent succession of efficiency gains has researchers, investors and companies convinced the effort is finally close to success, according to a RenewEconomy report.

“This will be ‘energy to go,’” said Steffanie Rohr, head of marketing for Heliatek, a German company that also has plans to begin commercial production of 1-foot by 4-foot plastic solar strips this year.

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Vishal Shrotriya, a vice president of Solarmer Energy, created by researchers at UCLA to develop the plastic solar cells, argues that lightweight, portable solar will create markets where bulky, rigid silicon panels cannot compete.

“Asia and India are going to be a huge market for low-cost solar energy,” he said. “There are plenty of places off the grid there that could use this.” He envisions the material providing portable power for military uses, rescue missions, sailors. It can be mounted on the wings of drones or on backpacks to power portable electronics, among other possibilities.

All solar manufacturers are further threatened by a flood of cheap silicon solar panels from China that have undermined American manufacturers even as solar installers and homeowners have rejoiced. Skeptics say that flood leaves little room for a less-efficient challenger.

But plastic photovoltaics can be made with reconfigured paper printing presses, and Solarmer Energy’s Shrotiya is confident that, even with lower silicon prices, plastic can undercut them by two or three times.

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