Inkjet Printers Could Provide Solar Much Needed Scale
We keep hearing that the sun provides more than enough energy for the earth’s population needs, but at least in the U.S., solar has not scaled to its full potential because it is still relatively too expensive compared to conventional sources of energy. Last week we discussed 3D printing, and a similar technology could prove to be disruptive, too. Now inkjet printing technology, which has become the standard in our homes and offices, could help solar technology proliferate. These printers are not your ordinary student desktop printers purchased for a song at Costco. Oregon State University researchers believe that solar cells could be printed on materials as thin as paper. This solar inkjet printer process involves the deposit of trace amounts of copper, indium, gallium and selenium, or CIGS technology on a thin film. The process slashes the cost of manufacturing solar panels in half, and is more efficient because less materials are wasted. (And no, the technology does not look like the jerry-rigged picture above left!) There are still hurdles to this technology. The minerals needed for CISGs technology are rare and even more expensive. Currently the solar films have an efficiency of five percent, paltry compared to the 15 percent efficiency that commercial solar panels offer. And silicon, which has become more expensive, is still the standard for solar technology because other elements simply do not work as effectively. But even as the prices of all commodities rise, if this project can scale, we could all benefit because we would be using less rare minerals while the cost of solar declines in the long run. Too many homes are still built using 19th century technology, and prefabricated materials can help bring down the cost of housing while we cope with population growth. Technology like that of the Oregon State researchers is one part of the puzzle. Sustainable or green building is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, but the prices for clean energy technologies have got to come down, otherwise reality dictates that we will still turn to fossil fuels for our energy needs. The upshot is, this is a green technology that must succeed.