Scientists at the University of Sheffield and the University of Cambridge have developed a spray-coating technique for photovoltaic cells in a bid to reduce panel costs.

The scientists claim to have replicated methods used to spray paint cars to show that it can also be used to make solar cells.

Professor David Lidzey from the University of Sheffield said: “We found that the performance of our spray coated solar cells is the same as cells made with more traditional research methods, but which are impossible to scale in manufacturing.”

Most solar cells are manufactured using special energy intensive tools and using materials such as silicon that themselves contain large amounts of embodied energy.

Plastic, by comparison, requires much less energy to make. By spray-coating a plastic layer in air the team hope the overall energy used to make a solar cell can be significantly reduced.

A downside to using plastics as a solar cell material – needed for the spray technique – is that they are not currently as efficient at generating electricity as cells made from silicon. The vast majority of solar panels found in the UK are made from silicon and are expected to last over 25 years.

However, the scientists believe it is unlikely that plastic cells will ever be this stable, but if the energy cost of plastic cells can be lowered enough they will become more effective than silicon over their life cycle.

Professor Lidzey added: “Increasing the energy conversion efficiency and lifetime of plastic cells are significant issues that many groups are working on. It should also be noted that the cost of silicon solar panels have reduced significantly over the last few years so plastic solar cells will have to catch up with these improvements.”

The team believes this technology could one day be provided to people in developing countries and used on glass in buildings or car roofs.