UW Startup, Soluxra, to Form Around Organic Solar Cell Technology

A new startup company is in the works at the University of Washington, based on inexpensive, portable solar cells that could go far beyond the standard rooftop model. Conventional solar cells are made from expensive silicon, but the UW group, led by materials science and engineering professor Alex Jen, has come up with a way to harness solar energy using thin polymer film—akin to really thin cling wrap.

“You can potentially make it to cover a large area,” said Jen, an expert in nanomaterials and organic polymer-based electronics. “It’s low-cost, lightweight, flexible, and could be conformed to any substrate you would like to use.”

The “large area” part of that equation is especially important, Jen said, as energy experts have estimated that solar cells covering 150 square miles in the Southwest working at 10 percent efficiency could generate enough electricity to power the entire United States. Jen’s technique could eventually help meet that goal.

The plastic film, which Jen said can be printed in a similar process to newspaper printing, is highly adaptable. It can be made in a semi-transparent form, so you could sandwich sheets of it between two glass plates and have tinted windows on your home or office building that double as solar panels.

It could even be used to power portable electronic devices, Jen said, just by sticking these thin films to the back of a computer or iPod. His group has made several versions of the polymer solar cells, and is in the process of scaling it up to make a prototype for large-area use. “Sunlight is very abundant,” Jen said. “The exposure of sunlight in one hour contains the amount of energy equal to the whole human population’s use in one year.”

But conventional solar panels are costly. Solar energy currently costs about four or five dollars per watt, compared to less than one dollar per watt for fossil fuels, Jen said. His group’s technology could bring the costs of solar energy down to similar prices as fossil fuels, in part because the manufacturing process could be done on a much larger scale than silicon solar cells. The challenge is to … Next Page »

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Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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