A pandemic couldn't stop our research into flexible solar panels, but it did create new challenges and innovation.

Victoria’s 2020 ‘second-wave’ COVID-19 lockdown meant our top researchers could not use their labs.

Determined to make flexible solar panels a reality, the team overcame adversity with stunning innovation to advance the field – all from the comfort of home.

A light bulb moment for flexible solar panels

Dr Doojin Vak with safety glasses onlooking at the machine that prints flexible solar panels.

Dr Doojin Vak printing flexible solar panels.

For Dr Doojin Vak, time away from the lab led to an epiphany that could transform the solar industry.

Doojin and the Printed Photovoltaics Team use industrial printers to make super thin and flexible solar panels that can be applied to pretty much anything, including awnings, tents and backpacks.

While the team has been working hard to improve the energy efficiency of their flexible solar panels to rival traditional silicon cells, Doojin used his time during lockdown to prevent COVID-19 impacting on the progress of his research.

Close-up image of the research machine

Doojin’s new automated research system.

While the researchers are away, the robots slay

Prior to the lockdown brainwave, creating research samples of flexible solar cells was a time-consuming process.

Our experienced researchers could only make and test up to 20 solar cells in a day and needed to be there every step of the way.

To facilitate work from home, Doojin designed and built a research robot that can be controlled remotely or autonomously so his work could continue in the lab.

Doojin’s new automated research system was able to fabricate and test a whopping 12,000 cells in a 24-hour period, without a researcher in sight. No biggie – that’s just 600 times more than the team’s usual output.

This means the team has already achieved new-record energy efficiency for the technology. They’re now keen to partner with Australian businesses to kickstart flexible solar manufacturing in Australia.

Cassette tapes make a comeback

Introducing the concept of a cassette tape into the research process made this advance possible. Basically, one robot ‘records’ different solar cells at each position in a roll of tape. Then, the other robot ‘plays’ the tape exactly like a cassette player.

So, while some of us remember playing and recording music with a dual cassette deck in the 80s, predictably, Doojin’s process looks much more modern.

Fabricating so many cells created a new challenge for the team: how do they process the volume of data produced? By using artificial intelligence, or more specifically machine learning, of course.

In another ‘first’, Doojin is working with colleagues at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea to use machine learning to analyse and predict manufacturing parameters of printed solar cells.

And they’ve demonstrated record breaking efficiency for organic solar cells.

The combination of autonomous testing and machine learning is further accelerating the development of the technology. Amazingly, Doojin did all of this working from home during the pandemic.

A new day dawns for flexible solar panels

A tent pitched in a remote grassy area with flexible solar panels

Imagine using a tent embedded with solar film that could charge lights and devices while you’re out hiking! Credit: Rowan Muller.

Our printable, flexible solar panels are ready to shine. They’re thin, lightweight, and approaching the same energy efficiency as their bulky rooftop counterparts.

We use organic or perovskite solar cells, which are made from a mix of organic and inorganic materials rather than traditional silicon solar cells. We employ our highly-specialised ink to print the solar cells onto rolls of polymer film. This process is significantly cheaper than producing solid silicon panels.

The team ensures developments can be rapidly translated to commercial production processes by focusing on printing techniques that are relevant to industry. This in turn will allow for the product to reach the marketplace faster.

Flexible solar will change the way we create and consume energy. It’s now time for Australian industry to leverage our scientific excellence and drive the use of flexible solar globally. Find out more about our licensing and investment opportunities.

We’re supporting work led by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) to implement the Modern Manufacturing Strategy.

Recycling and clean energy is one of the six priority areas in this whole-of-government strategy. The aim is to help Australian manufacturing scale-up and become more competitive and resilient. This in turn will create jobs now and for future generations.

10 comments

  1. Can I have some to power an upcoming cube sat? How well would they last in the extreme environs of space? Could they be folded and deployed once in space?

    1. G’day Chris,

      Thanks for your interest in these materials for space applications. This is definitely a key area of interest for us, and we are always looking for new partnerships to assist in translating our technologies. Can you please send us your details via the enquiries webform (https://www.csiro.au/en/contact), and we can then explore potential collaboration opportunities.

      Regards,

      Anthony

  2. Dreaming I know, but the application that I am waiting for is the top skin for aircraft wings and fuselage, models first of course but, depending on price and efficiency, hang-gliders, light aircraft, dirigible airships…. I expect that somewhere along this track we will hit hard limits but it’s nice to dream.

    1. I have had the same idea, even suggested it to light aircraft manufacturers. They don’t seem to understand enough to realise that it could work for them.

  3. Having lived the last 3 months in a tent I think solar panels like this would be awesome.
    Lower efficiency for extra flexibility is a decent tradeoff for this early in the research. There’d be a limit on lifespan of materials anyway with tents and so on, but I’m curious to see what the longevity of the printed panels would be on solid materials. If you could just reprint them as the tech improves, there’s a lot less embodied energy going into them.

  4. I can only think how far this can go .eg. Car Park,Playground,Backyard Shade Sails.Caravan Awnings,

  5. One problem with solid solar panels is mounting and wasted roof area. Could flexible solar panels be printed directly onto roofing materials like corrugated iron, and if so, what is the expected durability of the panels in this mode? If 100% of roof area could be utilized with a very long generating life then maybe this would be a fair tradeoff for lower generating efficiency.
    Expecting great things from Dr Doojin Vaks’s work.

    1. G’day Rod,

      This is an excellent idea, and one that we think has a lot of potential. Previously the team undertook a project with a local SME to do exactly this – by laminating the solar cells onto roofing materials during fabrication it greatly reduces the costs associated with mounting and installation. For further information I recommend you take a look at our Printed PV Team website that provides more details on this project – https://research.csiro.au/printedpv/crc-p-project/.

      Thanks again for your interest in this work.

      Regards,

      Anthony

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