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Solar Cells On Curtains, Smartphones & Clothes

Miles Barr is making solar technology practical

Barr is a 28 year old who holds a Ph.D in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His expertise is in chemical vapour deposition: the process by which two vapours in a sealed chamber react and create a thin, solid film encasing an object.

The process itself is not new (it has been effectively used in waterproofing fabric), but Barr has optimised it so a solar cell coating that is electrically active can be printed onto everyday materials. The process doesn’t use solvents that could cause damage or reach extreme temperatures.

His breakthrough came in 2010 after applying a solar cell coating to a sheet of paper.

“When we first did that, it really sparked a lot of imagination,” Barr told Business Week. “If you can put a solar cell on paper, what else can you put it on?” So they applied it on a variety of office supply materials including copy paper, tissue paper and even cling wrap.

Barr believes the technique could be used in the mass production of everyday items as it relies on abundant organic molecules as opposed to heavy metals or scarce elements. If it does hit production, Barr believes it will be inexpensive.

“The barriers to adoption and installation are reduced if you can really put solar cells anywhere,”  

At present the technology converts 2 per cent of the energy captured in light, which isn’t much compared to the 10-20 per cent absorbed by traditional photovoltaic panels. Barr isn’t discouraged though, believing refinements to the technology will see its absorption rise to 10 per cent.

The current cost of solar panels deters people for adopting solar technology. Barr hopes to overcome the price-hurdle by integrating the tech into everyday materials.

“You’re already hanging a curtain in your house. Why not add some energy to that?”