A recently announced partnership between the University of Texas and a company called Konarka Technologies sheds some light on the world of Plastic Photovoltaics, a cheaper and lighter version of silicon-based cells that could revolutionise the way solar cells are blended in our every day life.
Because the solar cells are encased in plastic, they weigh less, can be easily moulded and produced on a large-scale printing press which means that they can accommodate most shapes and sizes. Kornaka technologies says that the the solar panels can be dressed as curtain walls, components within windows, tents, café umbrellas, transit shelters and even backpacks and messenger bags.
The 10-year old company has already fitted some bus shelters in San Francisco with red translucent plastic solar roofs. Compared to normal plastic, the plastic Photovoltaics conduct electricity thanks to their different molecular structure.
Their price is also said to be a fraction of their silicon counterpart because of the manufacturing process and the low cost of the raw material.
However, there's still some room for improvement; their efficiency is still a fraction of the silicon solar panels at around 8 per cent (compared to 18 per cent). The current world record for efficiency on a plastic PV is 8.3, up from 6.5 per cent reached back in 2007.
There's also the fact that plastic PV tend to degrade faster because of their exposure to the outdoor environment.
Rather than focusing on improving efficiency though, it looks as if Konarka and others are looking to improve reliability and drive down costs so that the technology can be rolled out quickly or cheaply.
As for solar-panel blinds and curtains or roof tiles with embedded solar cells, David Lidzey from the University of Sheffield in the UK says that it will take a minimum of five years before we see a "significant volume of [solar-powered] devices made of plastic".