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Solar Paint - Could be on the Market by 2016

solar paint

Could it be the Obama administration is dragging its feet on solar panels for the White House because they're holding out for viable "solar paint" technology? In his June 24, 2011, announcement of the $500 million Advanced Manufacturing Partnership among businesses, universities and government, President Obama challenged the audience to, "Imagine if America was first to develop and cells you can brush onto a house for the same cost as paint...." In fact, the technology does exist; the real challenge is making it affordable.

What is Solar Paint?

Solar paint refers to a type of thin-film solar cells that are manufactured in a liquid form for spraying or brushing onto surfaces where the cells can absorb sunlight and, in turn, emit electricity. From walls, to windows, to rooftops, solar paint could one day make it possible for every surface of our homes to generate power.

What Are the Benefits of Solar Paint?

Like all thin-film solar cell technology, solar paint promises a lightweight, far less bulky alternative to traditional solar panels - not only saving space while in use, but also eliminating the costly, cumbersome problem of disposal and/or recycling.

What Organizations Are Working on Solar Paint Technology?

There are evidently a number of organizations working on solar paint development, but details of their progress is hard to find. Most published articles on the subject date back a year or more, making it difficult to gauge at what stage we're at in the technology coming to market. That said, a article dated February 14, 2011, provides a comprehensive overview of nanomaterials chemist Brian Korgel at the University of Texas Austin.

Korgel and his team at UT Austin are working on solar paint that utilizes CIGS nanocrystals. CIGS stands for Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide, the most energy efficient of the thin-film technologies. "These devices are 'sandwiches,' " says Korgel, "where you have the metal contact on the bottom and metal contact on the top to extract the charge out; and the middle part is the part that absorbs out the light."

Challenges associated with Korgel's solar paint technology are big hurdles to jump:

  • CIGS thin-film technology is the most variable, as it utilizes four metal alloys and processes that leave a lot of room for impurities to interfere with quality - copper, indium, gallium, and diselenide. And the viability of accessing these elements easily and affordably is also in question.
  • Currently, Korgel's CIGS solar paint technology achieves just 3 percent efficiency, which he says needs to be increased to at least 10 percent for this technology to be competitive with other energy sources.
  • It needs to be more effective at harvesting sunlight under cloudy conditions.

Assuming Korgel's team can rise to the challenge, Korgel's CIGS nanocrystals could be sprayed or "printed" onto surfaces, such as plastic, glass and fabric.

Other organizations working on solar paint technology include:

  • Ensol - This Norweigian company has an apparent focus on solar paint for windows, which produces a slight tint to the glass that remains transparent; they're hoping the technology may also be applied to walls.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory - They are working on a silicon-based solar ink that evidently logged a record-breaking 18 percent efficiency conversion.
  • NextGen - They are aiming to provide 40 percent efficiency at one-third the cost of traditional photovoltaic solar panels.

When Will We See Solar Paint on the Market?

Of all the organizations working on solar paint technology, only Ensol seems to reference an availability date, stating they'll have something to market by 2016.