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16 Nov 2012 03:11:03

Third generation solar technologies bring added value and functionality

Solar Cell
The entrance of third generation solar cells, such as dye sensitized solar cells ("DSSCs"), is expected to open up new possibilities in the solar market. DSSCs will provide added functionalities like lower weight, flexibility, and semi-transparency, and the use of low cost materials and simple manufacturing processes mean lowered overall costs. Developers of DSSCs believe that these benefits will allow for the use of photovoltaics in ways in which conventional cells do not allow for. However, there are some performance limitations that need to be resolved, namely in relation to lifetime and efficiency. DSSC developers now must identify niche market segments where the pros of these solar cells outweigh the limitations.

Where dye-sensitized solar cells out-rank the others
Superior low light performance in indoor conditions, better high temperature performances, increased flexibility, semi-transparency, and being easier to manufacture are a few areas where DSSCs may have the advantage over traditional solar technologies and be a better option for certain functions. While silicon and inorganic thin film are types of solar cells that offer higher efficiency levels and longer lifetimes, DSSCs offer good form factor, better indoor performance, and low capital expenditure.

Working out the kinks
As mentioned above, the main areas in need of improvement for DSSCs are lifetime and efficiency. For outdoor lighting conditions in particular, DSSCs do not perform as well as other technologies based on efficiency levels. That said, progress is being made on the development of DSSCs, and they are now closing the gap in efficiency. For example, material and structural optimizations have allowed for higher open-circuit voltages to be obtained and, thus, shown a positive impact on overall power-conversion efficiency.

Another hurdle to overcome is the shorter lifetime of DSSCs compared to competing technologies in certain scenarios. This is particularly true for flexible forms rather than glass deposited versions. Although glass deposited versions can reach lifetimes similar to other technologies (over 10 years), degradation mechanisms such as sensitivity to moisture, oxygen, and light itself can act as a barrier for DSSCs deposited on glass to achieve comparable lifetimes.

Commercialization of DSSCs technologies
While there are some performance limitations for DSSCs, there are also added benefits, specifically in indoor operating conditions and for wireless sensor networks. The advantage of DSSCs in indoor settings have allowed for the production and sale of some of the first ever DSSC products. One such example is Logitech's Folio wireless keyboard, launched in May 2012 and powered exclusively by solar cells. Another example is G24i´s solar battery system that is currently being used in solar powered motorized blinds in a major hotel chain in Las Vegas. This technology has saved the hotel an estimated $3 million dollars in construction costs.

Third generation solar cells are also making breakthroughs in the wireless sensors market. The arrival of low power electronics has made the use of wireless sensors and switches appealing because they can harvest very small amounts of energy from their environment. In collecting small amounts of light, the sensors can detect and transmit a signal with reduced energy needs and can operate in environments where other technologies are unable to do so. Partnerships are being formed between experts in DSSC sensor technology and low power electronics developers to create models that illustrate the capabilities of energy-harvesting wireless sensors and to unveil the possibilities for the future of the wireless sensor market.

The forecast for DSSCs
New technologies are continuously being developed as the interest in renewable energy and more sustainable ways of producing energy grows. There are many barriers, however, during the development process, as the realization of new products and applications require adequate financing, appropriate markets to enter into, and time to optimize performance. With the assistance of incentives and government mandates, as well as the identification of niche markets that allow for early-stage small scale commercialization, new companies are able to remain in motion even in the difficult start. Additional support buys time for these companies to generate income that then enables them to undergo further research and development that will optimize performance and later lead to increased volumes and cost-effectiveness.

One of the ultimate goals for DSSCs is the potential to have these third generation solar cells incorporated into large-scale installations. First, though, developers must overcome the above-mentioned barriers. By doing so, and presuming performance optimization continues, DSSCs will become competitive with other technologies and will create a wide range of new market opportunities.

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