By Simon Lauder
ABC News Online, Thu Jun 30, 2011
Australian researchers have developed solar panels which can be painted or printed directly onto a surface.
The project is one of several initiatives which have the potential to revolutionise solar energy by eliminating the need for bulky panels which need to be attached to buildings.
With help from the CSIRO, University of Melbourne PhD student Brandon MacDonald has worked out how to make solar cells so small they can be suspended in liquid, such as ink.
"We can then apply this ink onto a surface, so this could be glass or plastics or metals," Mr MacDonald told AM.
"What we could do is actually integrate these into the building as it's being made, so you can imagine solar windows, or having it actually be part of the roofing material."
These solar panels will be made of nano-crystals which have a diameter of just a few millionths of a millimetre.
Mr MacDonald says they will use just 1 per cent of the materials needed to make traditional solar panels.
"The problem with conventional solar cells, which are based on silicone and have been around for 60 years, is that they are quite efficient at converting sunlight to energy," he said.
"But in terms of making them it's a fairly costly and time-consuming process and so at the moment solar energy is more expensive than, say, coal or fossil fuels," he said.
"With these inks, and eventually trying to print the cells on a large scale, we hope that we'll make it so that this technology is cost-competitive with traditional energy sources."
Mr MacDonald hopes the new technology will be two to three times cheaper than solar cells currently on the market.
And he is hoping the print-on solar panel will be on the market in about five years.
An Australian-based company has already taken a big step towards the large scale marketing of a very similar product.
Solar developer Dysol has struck a deal with steel giant Tata Steel to develop building products, such as steel girders and roofing panels, with solar panels embedded in the surface.
Dysol's founder, Sylvia Tulloch, says the product should be ready to go in two years.
"I think a third generation solar, where we talk about processes that enable us to integrate solar layers into all sorts of everyday products and particularly into building products - so roofs, or walls or windows that have layers on them that generate electricity," she said.
Ms Tulloch says in years to come an entire building could be generating electricity.
"Absolutely, so when you specify your roof, you will specify what proportion of it you want to be generating electricity," she said.
There are several other projects around the world which are on the same track, developing a new generation of solar panel which are easier to manufacture.
Kane Thornton from the Clean Energy Council says the reduced cost will be revolutionary.
"Many people have underestimated that rate at which solar technology has become part of everyone's lives and certainly it's a matter of years rather than decades and I certainly hope it's only a couple of years rather than many years," he said.