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 improve the efficiency of organic solar cells, which currently convert about 6 percent of incoming solar energy into electricity—Jen’s goal is to hit 10 percent efficiency.
Jen and his colleagues hope to officially launch the company, called Soluxra, this summer. It will be housed at first on the UW campus in a new building designed for interdisciplinary research and startups affiliated with the university.
The UW’s TechTransfer office has been working closely with Jen to help get the technology ready for commercialization. LaunchPad, the office’s program to help UW-related startups, has paired Jen with an experienced entrepreneurial advisor and several MBA students to help him create a business plan. He and the other researchers involved in the project have had several meetings with potential investors, Jen said, but the company is still in the early planning stages. Jen, who will take the role of chief scientist in Soluxra, has been involved in four previous startups.
The inspiration for the thin-film polymer solar cells came from an earlier technology created by Jen’s group—flat light-emitting diodes made out of a similar thin polymer. The material could be used like wallpaper on your walls or ceiling to create a continuous light source. Jen said he realized by flipping things around—instead of energy in, light out, it would be light in, energy out—he could generate solar-based electricity using a similar technology.
Commercialization possibilities are always in the back of Jen’s mind, he said. “When I conduct research, instead of just innovation and novelty, I always think about the potential application that can be derived from the study, to translate innovative research and generate something useful for mankind.”
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