Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory have developed the ultimate solar panels for Britain, which work better on a gloomy, cloudy day.
In a departure from ‘blue sky thinking’ scientists in Britain have developed solar panels that work better on a cloudy day.
Their material is as thin and flexible as cloth, and can be made in any colour and printed in sheets on a 3D printer.
Although the technology is still at development stage, researchers hope that in future it could be used to make coats or bags which could charge phones or laptops or keep the wearer warm.
It is so lightweight that it could also be fitted to homes cheaply without the need to reinforce roofs and would be virtually invisible so home owners would not be forced to put up with the eyesore of solar panels.
Car manufactures Fiat and Ford are also testing it to see if it could be added to car roofs to charge electrical circuits and avoid flat batteries.
Traditional solar cells are made of semi-conductors such as crystalline silicon. When light strikes the cell some of the energy is absorbed and knocks electrons loose in the silicon which can be forced into a current and drawn off for external use.
The new technology use small organic molecules as semi conductors which can be dissolved in a solution and printed in any shape using a 3D printer.
Most photovoltaics work best in strong, direct, sunlight of an intensity that is rarely seen in northern European countries.
But intriguingly the new material – known as organic photovoltaic – works more efficiently when out of direct sunlight, so is well suited for Britain’s inclement weather.
Scientists discovered that when testing it in direct sunlight desert conditions it could only manage 10 per cent efficiency, but in cloudy conditions that jumped to 13 per cent.
Dr. Fernando Castro, principal research scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, said: “Organic photovoltaics work much better in low and diffused light conditions. Even if it’s cloudy they still work.
“It’s not that they are going to produce more power but they are more efficient at generating power from the light that is available. So they would work better than normal soar cells do in cloud.”
The material would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than traditional solar cells, slashing the cost of installing them on homes.
“In the short term it will be used for consumer electronics that you could carry in your bag to charge your phone for example,” said Dr Castro.
“And it comes in a variety of colours and shapes, rather than the typical black. It can even be transparent so you could put it on windows and you wouldn’t see it.
“It’s very light so you could just roll it out onto a roof. You wouldn’t need to reinforce the roof and there wouldn’t be any need for health and safety training.
“Companies are looking at putting it on the roof of the cars so that you wouldn’t drain the battery with modern electronics like Bluetooth which are on all the time.”
Although organic photovoltaics currently only produce around half of the voltage of silicon solar panels, the team is confident that it will improve within a few years.
They believe that within five years products using organic photovoltaics will be widely available.
However the finding that the material worked better in clouds was so counterintuitive that scientists have struggled to get funding to develop the new technology because current standards are based on how well the materials work in direct sunlight.
“Organic PV, which could offer greater efficiency in Britain’s gloomy skies, may appear less efficient based on standardised lab testing,” said Dr Castro.
“For a long time this technology received little attention and limited push from investors. We would definitely be further on if people realised this earlier.”