3D printing is all the rage at the moment, from the debate over 3D printed guns to plans to print pizza with a 3D food printer. Scientists in Australia, however, have shown that regular printing can still do amazing things too. Researchers at Australia's Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) — a collaboration between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Melbourne, Monash University and industry partners — have successfully printed an A3 sheet of photovoltaic cells.
Image credit: CSIRO
The sheets are the largest flexible, plastic solar cells that have been printed in Australia, having gone from printing cells the size of a finger nail just a few years ago. Research Dr David Jones eventually sees the cells, which produce 10–50 watts of power per square meter, "being laminated to windows that line skyscrapers [and] we'll also be able to embed cells onto roofing materials."
Given the cost of the printer alone, $200,000, and its size (see below), this is not exactly the kind of thing that just anyone can start doing.
Image credit: CSIRO
While photovoltaic cells have been printed before, the printing process used in Australia was different in that it used existing printing techniques, albeit on a large scale. According to researcher Dr David Jones, they used "the same techniques that you would use if you were screen printing an image on to a T-Shirt." CSIRO materials scientist Dr Scott Watkins says that one of the most significant elements of the approach being taken at CSIRO is that they are "developing our processes to be able to use these existing printing technologies so that the barrier to entry for manufacturing these new printed solar cells is as low as possible."
So although printing your own solar panels might be out reach for most people at the moment, in the future it could be far more widespread. I quite like the idea of the windows of skyscrapers being covered in solar panels. That way even if they look ugly, at least they are being useful.
I for one plan to invest heavily in both 3D and conventional printing, and print my own house, print some solar panels for it, and live off printed pizza.