Solarprint: Harvesting and Recycling light

Standard photovoltaic cells provide the means of turning light into electrical energy and are commonly found on solar panels and other suchlike devices. They are usually constructed using semiconducting materials such as silicon. While costs of manufacture have fallen over the years, they are still relatively expensive in relation to the costs saved by their use. They are also confined by the nature of their construction materials as to how they can be constructed. This limits where and how they can be used.

Instead of silicon, dye-sensitive solar cells (DSSC,) a technology discovered by Michael Grätzel at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, uses a layer of dye sensitized nanocrystalline semiconductor oxide particles. This process has numerous advantages both in terms manufacturing cost and range of possible applications.

Solarprint is an Irish company founded in 2008 by Dr. Mazhar Bari, Andre Fernon and Roy Horgan. It is based in an 8,000 Sq Ft site in Sandyford, Dublin, and employs 21 people at present. Solarprint has made its own contributions to DSSC technology by making innovations in the constitution of the dye sensitive layer which allows for greater ease of manufacturing.

One big advantage of DSSC technology is its ability to produce electricity at very low light levels. By being able to harvest ambient light from gloomy days and indoor sources it can power or supplement the power for remotely located sensors and other devices.

Also, because DSSC lends itself to being screen printed it can be formed and shaped in such a manner that it to be more easily incorporated into the design of a given object. Say, the roof panel of an electric car.

Roy Horgan is the Business Development Director and Co-Founder. We asked him why DSSC technology was so important?

“What we have done is that we have optimized the cell and tuned it for very low light. We are essentially recycling light.”

Also, “You have theoretical limits in terms of the efficiencies in what you can do with silicon.”

  • Firstly: “At the moment you are getting about 21 to 22 percent in some of the very highly efficient cells. Because DSSC is a nano material we can reduce the energy losses and increase the optimizations and it can go much further.”
  • Secondly: Embodied energy. In solar energy products the energy used in their production is factored into their cost. “The maximum temperature we go up to is about 500C unlike silicon which needs to be processed and purified and goes up to about 1600C. The energy payback is much quicker with this technology.”
  • Thirdly: How it captures light. “DSSC is particularly good in ambient and diffuse light. It picks up scattered light well. That makes it interesting for where we want to focus on initially which is indoor applications. Places like wireless sensors, controls operating at ultra-low power.”

“We are taking these devices up from lab scale to modules to many thousands of modules for deploy and forget networks. Energy management systems, occupancy, temperature, window sensors, alarm systems, wiring panels and so on. Anything that needs ultra low power we can power.”

What are you doing that is different?

“Most people that are looking at this want to do building integrated photovoltaics. They want to cover buildings with them. Because we have developed a low light solution you don’t need to cover buildings initially. First, get the building’s energy management system efficient using wireless networks.

“What we are doing is disabling the need for batteries to be present within these sensors. If there are batteries we can lengthen the life of the battery which helps with the cost of maintenance.”

How efficient is this technology?

“We are developing the lowest embodied energy photovoltaic technology that currently exists. We use eco-friendly materials and our solutions lend themselves to power energy management systems both today and in the future. The biggest issue today is not your cars, not your planes — it is the built environment. 40% of all carbon today is from the built environment.

“Before you put your solar panels up, get your building right. Reduce the power consumption of your building. An energy management system can reduce that need for power anywhere between 25 and 50 percent with an integrated smart management system.

“Then you can start putting your solar panels up and your wind turbines up.”

Not are only Solarprint developing this new technology they are also planning to manufacture and market their own products.

“We are planning for growth. Everything we do is for growth. We think six, to nine, to twelve months ahead. From human resources, to engineering, to how we deal with customers.

“We are trying to infiltrate into all aspects of downstream activity as we don’t know where we will get traction just yet. But what we do know that every place we have infiltrated we have got traction.

‘Ultimately our biggest challenge is manufacturing at scale and we can only bring on the best people and be advised by the best possible people we can.

“We have a great opportunity. It won’t be from lack of effort that we don’t do this.”

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