Silver ink promises cheaper, more efficient PV       

Sensemaking / Silver ink promises cheaper, more efficient PV       

Researchers have developed a conductive ink that can print high-performance electrical circuits on flexible surfaces, including solar panels.

09 May 2012

Researchers have developed a conductive ink that can print high-performance electrical circuits on flexible surfaces, including solar panels.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have claimed advances in silver ink technology that can potentially both cut the costs of solar photovoltaics, and increase their efficiency by about 1%. This is a significant jump, considering it comes from just one small piece of the solar panel puzzle. And what, you may be wondering, is silver ink? It's a conductive material that's used to print high-performance electrical circuits on flexible substrates. Among the many applications: batteries, displays, wearable electronic clothing and, yes, solar panels.

The team led by Professor Jennifer Lewis has developed a silver ink that, unlike prior versions, has no particles in its initial solution form. This is important because particles can clog nozzles and limit how small the patterned features can be. Now nozzles as small as 100 nanometers can be used, yielding printed features that are only 5 microns wide. The result: much finer line widths and, because silver blocks light, significantly more efficient conversion of solar energy to electricity.

Younan Xia, a Georgia Tech professor and leading authority in this area, calls the Lewis team's approach "novel". He notes that the new silver ink also goes through a necessary hardening process, called annealing, at a relatively low temperature, thereby reducing costs and making possible the use of less expensive substrates.

Both Xia and Lewis see the new technology as a significant advance, but something less than a breakthrough. "For conductive ink, people are looking to migrate from silver to less expensive metals like copper and nickel. Now that will be a breakthrough", says Lewis.

Meanwhile though, a "significant number" of corporations, including major chemical and display companies, have contacted the research team about licensing the technology. The new silver ink is breakthrough enough for them, apparently. – Carl Frankel

Photo: iStockphoto / Thinkstock

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