The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Plastic Solar Cells Roll Into Unlit Villages

Printed roll-to-roll organic PVs may not be the most powerful, but they're cheap

3 min read

By day, the electronic devices that Frederik Krebs rolls off his printing presses could be mistaken for old plastic overhead-projector transparencies. Nightfall reveals their ingenious purpose: Snap the metal fasteners at the corners together and the sheets glow with reading-quality light. Krebs's sheets may prove to be much more than a curiosity, for the senior scientist at Denmark's Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy has found a cheap way to integrate LEDs, photovoltaic (PV) cells, and ultrathin lithium batteries into a potentially life-saving lamp. He hopes to see them on sale next year, providing an affordable alternative to kerosene lighting for the more than 1.5 billion people in developing countries who lack access to electricity.

Success would also mark an important first step to commercialization for the lamp's cheap-to-produce yet anemically inefficient organic photovoltaic technology. Most organic PVs are composed of conducting polymers and carbon nanostructures, which in the right combinations mimic the p-n junction of silicon and other inorganic photovoltaics. Efficiency is significantly lower, however, because polymers are poor charge conductors. "This is the lousiest of the solar technologies available," admits Krebs.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

Keep Reading ↓Show less