Israeli solar company, 3GSolar Photovoltaics (www.3gsolar.com), together with Norwegian nanotech company Joma International, is developing technology which may well erase the carbon footprint of solar energy.
The company’s dye-sensitized solar cells (DSC) are third generation thin-film cells which can deliver solar power through the windows of the largest and most magnificent buildings. Concentrated direct sunlight is not a requirement. The Eureka Eurostars program brought 3GSolar together with Norwegian nanotech company, Joma International (www.joma-int.com) for R&D, which may well lead to the availability of cost-effective, high performance and tastefully designed solar energy within the next five years.
SolarTrek: The Next Generation
The photovoltaic (PV) cell industry has already undergone major technological developments. First generation solar cells are made from crystalline silicon (c-Si) which have proven highly efficient in converting strong direct light to energy but perform less well in diffuse light and partial shade.
PV modules use energy from light to produce electricity. The PV power generation market currently stands at $100 billion of installations annually and is growing rapidly worldwide. Yet today’s dominant PV technologies are limited to rooftop and open field solar installations where there are no obstructions and the modules are all optimally oriented to the sun. This is the situation for crystalline silicon which holds 90% of the market today and also for the leading thin-film technologies.
The emerging generation of solar cells developed by 3GSolar do not require orientation directly towards the sun and produce electricity even if made partially transparent. They also work indoors under fluorescent and LED light, providing up to ten times more power than crystalline silicon in those conditions.
Making a Material Difference
3GSolar’s third generation technology is based on dye-sensitized solar cell (DSC) technology which is currently considered the most efficient, robust and promising emerging third-generation technology. DSC mimics photosynthesis in its conversion of solar to chemical energy. It carries a value-for-money proposition that potentially competes with fossil fuels. DSC does not require either expensive raw materials or production methods, and when integrated into building materials, DSCs can deliver solar power to households and office buildings without taking up additional space on either rooftops or land.
Unlike current silicon PV cells, DSCs convert light into electricity over a wide range of intensity. In diffuse light, shade and direct sunlight, electricity can be generated without compromising on performance, even at elevated temperatures. It works on cloudy days, in the shade and is like magic under the Scandinavian midnight sun. Given this flexibility to light, DSCs are ideally suited for use in building façades and windows and can contribute to powering even large office buildings.
Breaking through Market Barriers
DSC technology itself is not new. What is new is 3GSolar’s success in overcoming major drawbacks which until now have prevented DSC from being commercially viable. 3GSolar has solved key technical issues for embedding DSC technology in both glass and plastic substrate. Unlike silicon-based technology, dyes are printed onto the film. 3G has succeeded in scaling up the technology, creating large-area dye cells of a size, stability and durability fit for building integrated photovoltaics, and has developed the largest DSC cells to date. These cells can be integrated in both clear and coloured glass panes. Although still in development, 3GSolar’s DSCs compare favourably with silicon-based cells in the amount of light they convert into electricity in the less-than-perfect light conditions of building facades.
BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaics) is one of the fast growing applications in the solar market. 3GSolar will offer solar modules that can be of any colour and installed anywhere, even behind trees and structures that shade the module. 3GSolar replaces visually unattractive silicon modules with the architects’ dream of colour, shape, form and transparency which enhance a building’s appearance rather than detracting from it.
Believing that small is also beautiful, 3G is also developing off-grid “indoor solar” which can render wireless electronics and networks battery-less as well. The company’s consumer electronic glass and plastic dye cells can operate indoors with the aid of natural light alone. Applications include computer peripherals, electronic price tags for retailing, interior climate control, portable medical devices and security systems.
Norwegian Nano-engineering Ups Performance
Dye solar cells are made from the application of electrolyte, titania and dye in thin layers of glass, plastic, metal or another substrate material. Sunlight passes through the transparent electrode into the dye layer where it can excite electrons which then flow into the titanium dioxide. The composition of the underlying materials affects the ability of the cell to convert light to electricity. Joma International AS is a Norwegian nanotechnology company which develops and manufactures innovative nanoparticles, nano-structured coatings and composite materials. Joma and 3GSolar entered a three-year collaboration designed to improve the conversion efficiency and cost/unit of energy ratio of 3G’s large solar cell production. Joma contracted services from Israeli AVLabs (www.avl-labs.com) an R&D for material chemistry projects, particularly in the area of separation technologies, formulations and printing and coating technologies. The collaboration is in its final stages and has successfully developed a proven upscalable process for a competitive DSC paste.
Last May 3GSolar embarked on a three-year collaboration under the EU OLAE initiative, with Germany’s Merck and UK company Colour Synthesis Solutions, Ltd. The project, named COBRA, focuses on improving both the efficiency and durability of the cells through the engineering of the electrolytes and the configuration of the DSCs
Seeking Strategic Advantage
3GSolar has successfully completed several rounds of financing by angel, VC and strategic investors from Israel, the UK and China. The CEO, Barry Breen, estimates that the technology for the indoor solar cells will be ready for market in 2014 and the large solar cells for BIPV will be ready in 2015. He is already thinking about the next round of financing. While not objecting to a purely financial investment, Breen is particularly interested in attracting a strategic investor. “We offer the building industry the ability to build beautiful structures with energy and cost-efficiency gracefully built in.”