April 17, 2012 at 3:06 PM ET
A new type of organic solar panel may soon make cars with tinted windows and thumping stereos a shade greener.
The technology is under development by German startup Heliatek and aims to “be instrumental in establishing environmentally friendly solar energy as a widespread, commonplace technology available to everyone.”
To do this, they are rolling out solar panels that are made via a vacuum deposition process that puts small organic molecules on flexible films, MIT Technology Review explains in a profile of the company.
Organic solar cells have been around for decades. The idea behind them is that certain organic molecules—typically types of long polymers—could be cheaply printed, leading to very-low-cost solar cells. But such cells have proven inefficient and have had relatively short lifetimes, so they are used only in niche applications.
Heliatek's panels are more efficient than the polymer-based ones, and are expected to last as long as a conventional silicon solar cell. The company uses short molecules called oligomers instead of polymers. Oligomers are inherently more stable, and can be deposited using a vacuum-deposition process that allows for precise control over the thickness and uniformity of the resulting films.
The organic solar panels convert about 8 percent of the energy in light into electricity whereas conventional solar panels are in the 14 to 15 percent efficiency range. But, in cloudy weather or hot environments, both which make conventional panels less efficient, the organic ones hold their own.
For now, the panels also cost more per watt to produce than conventional panels, though cost parity may come in five years or so if the company succeeds in scaling up its manufacturing process. In the meantime, it is looking for niche markets to take advantage of the panel’s light weight and flexibility.
One such company is a manufacturer who wants to put them in windows. “It’s like tinted windows, only these windows generate electricity,” Heliatek CEO Thibaud de Séguillon told Technology Review.
With such a technology, one can imagine a car with tinted windows generating enough electricity even on a cloudy day to power its base-thumping stereo as it rolls through the city streets.
--Via Technology Review
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.