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Company sets record for solar efficiency

August 10, 2007 - Kim Leonard - TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Solar energy's cost and relative inefficiency have stunted its growth for decades, but Harmar-based Plextronics Inc. said it's made a major step toward solving both problems through a technology that "prints" solar cell technology onto plastic or glass.

The company said Thursday it set a world record for efficiency in converting solar light to power, as certified by the federal Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. And its technology could cut the cost of solar cells to less than $1 a watt, about one-fifth of today's standard cell made of silicon.

"Some of the potential customers for this are talking about coming out with products as early as 2008," said Troy Hammond, Plextronics' vice president of products, though the company expects a more significant impact a year or two later.

Plextronics, known for its "electronic ink" used in cell phone screens and other devices, started developing organic photovoltaic technology less than two years ago. In June, the Carnegie Mellon University spinoff won a $3 million DOE grant to develop its process for commercial uses.

Its Plexcore ink system set a record for single layer organic solar cells of converting 5.4 percent of solar light to electricity, compared to a previous high of 5.2 percent set about a year ago in the rapidly advancing industry.

Plextronics' first solar products will be relatively simple, and many will be geared for consumers, Hammond said.

Portable chargers for laptop computer batteries or other devices could be made with glass solar cells that provide five or so watts, for example. On the flexible side, a jacket's outer layer could collect energy and transfer it to a wireless phone.

Longer-term, Plexcore could be used to make energy-generating devices for remote regions and for enhancing power grids worldwide, Hammond said. There are potential military uses, including flexible tent fabrics to heat and power encampments.

Solar energy professionals were impressed yesterday with Plextronics' achievement.

"The cost of installation and the cost of the product is what makes solar not as competitive as other sources of power," said Ann Gerace, executive director of the nonprofit Conservation Consultants Inc., South Side.

Still, competition is robust right now to boost efficiency and bring down costs, and "whoever can do that is going to have a real advantage in the marketplace," said Maureen Mulligan, Pennsylvania lobbyist with the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, adding Plextronics' feat could be a "major breakthrough."

Dick Rosey, vice president of marketing and sales for Solar Power Industries Inc., of Rostraver in Westmoreland County, said Plextronics' technology, like his own company's, has much potential for home and commercial construction.

A window or glass panel in a home could work as a power generator, he said, or on the roof, solar shingles could do the same job as a three-kilowatt solar roof installation that costs as much as $25,000.

Those uses for Plextronics' glass or plastic solar cells would come later, Hammond said. "We are moving fast, and we have a clear path to improving this technology."

Kim Leonard can be reached at or 412-380-5606.


Updated: 2003/07/28