It is still early days for the organic photovoltaics (OPV) market, which uses semiconducting plastics initially developed at Cambridge University for electronics applications such as flexible displays. Although a very niche market at the moment organic solar cells have the potential to reach sales of US$500 million by 2015 and become a US$2 billion market by 2020, according to a research report from Nanomarkets in 2009.

Cambridge Enterprise, the University of Cambridge’s commercialization office and the Carbon Trust have revealed their new endeavor: Eight19 Limited. The new solar energy company will be focusing on developing and manufacturing high performance, low cost plastic solar cells for high-growth volume markets.  Professors Sir Richard Friend, Henning Sirringhaus and Neil Greenham of Cambridge, all part of the Cavendish Laboratory and the technology development company TTP have also partnered for the creation of the new company.

The idea for Eight19 comes from the Carbon Trust’s Cambridge University-TTP Advanced PV Research Accelerator and has a US$7 million investment from the Carbon Trust and Rhodia for the cultivation of product prototypes.  The OPV focus will be built off the Cavendish Laboratory’s development techniques for constructing large-scale plastic electronic mechanisms on flexible materials using a roll-to-roll process.

“This investment is perfectly in line with our strategy to explore new promising market segments fitting with our sustainable development commitment. Furthermore, we are convinced that open innovation is key to leverage our research and development capability. We are happy to work in close partnership with prominent scientists to develop this breakthrough technology”, explains Pascal Juery, group executive vice president of Rhodia.

Strengthening Eight19 is a management team, which is touted as being “world class” and having a record in producing low cost applications with scalable roll-to-roll technology, and co-founder Professor Sir Richard Friend, who, among other achievements, is credited with co-founding the Cambridge Display Technology and Plastic Logic.

However, start-up Eight19 is not alone in this potential market niche as companies in the U.S. are already racing to ramp manufacturing and develop end-user products from the flexible and lightweight product.

Low-cost manufacturing claims by many have yet to bare fruit, often hindered by encapsulation problems that limit product lifetimes to only a few years and very low cell conversion efficiencies that result in uncompetitive cost-per-watt figures compared to more mature thin-film technologies and conventional crystalline based solar modules.

Eight19 is also not alone in the UK as a project between steel manufacturer Corus and Dyesol is nearing completion and planning production for next year.

Written by Syanne Olson and additional reporting by Mark Osborne