Molecular Solar, the spin-out of Warwick University, is working with Imperial College London and several other firms to develop prototype high-efficiency multi-junction organic solar cells. In order to help with the commercialization of this next generation technology the consortium as received a total of £1.4 million in funding from the Technology Strategy Board and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Professor Tim Jones from the University of Warwick said, “We are working with solar cells made from organic semiconductor materials which offer the prospect of very low cost manufacture of lightweight, flexible cells. They are made from sustainable materials and can be deployed as flexible sheets that could be used for a variety of applications including: a solar powered mobile phone charger that’s rolls up into a shape as small as the size of a pen, micro-lights that can be added to clothing, and a detachable sun-shade for automobile windscreens that powers a small integral fan to circulate air and cool the interior of the car when parked in direct sunlight.”

The solar cells under development use materials similar to those found in organic LED television screens. By working on this version of solar cell technology the team hopes that the flexibility and narrow dimensions could be used to develop new products, such as pen-sized mobile phone chargers, light-up clothing and sun shades for car windows that power integral fans.

“We’re trying to produce a solar technology that’s more affordable for people and has a wider range of applications,” explained Peter Ballantyne, Chairman of Molecular Solar.

“We’re going away from traditional semiconductor materials to organics. We’re using the same basic materials as OLEDs but we’re using the reverse process, producing electricity from light instead of light from electricity.”

The solar cell materials are formed from small molecules found in dyes and pigments. By putting two dissimilar materials together electrons energized by sunlight can be harvested to generate electric current. Molecular Solar hopes to improve the generation efficiency of these materials from the current 6% to 10%, which would make the cells equivalent to flexible silicon technology.

“We want to modify these materials to create something that can harvest the whole solar spectrum, including ultra-violet and infrared light,” said Ballantyne.

As well as increasing the efficiency of the cells, the firm hopes to bring costs down to US$0.40 (£0.25) per watt of generating power, compared to US$1 for flexible silicon, as well as ensuring the materials are not affected by light, water or oxygen degradation.

Alongside Imperial College London Molecular Solar is working with partners Kurt Lesker, Asylum Research and New World Solar. In total 15 British businesses and seven universities will share £5 million of Government funding from the UK’s Technology Strategy Board and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to enable them to research the use of novel nano-scale technologies to develop the next generation of solar energy technology.

Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board said, “These projects will help to position British businesses to exploit the growing global demand for solar energy harvesting technologies – and in the process help grow the British economy – while at the same time provide sustainable energy solutions for the UK. The projects are great examples of how to transfer commercially-focused research into the business community.”

David Delpy, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council said, “This is the first example of nanoscience research funding from the Research Councils being directly pulled through to application funding with the Technology Strategy Board via a stage-gated funding route. This approach actively supports economic growth whilst helping to solve one of society's greatest challenges.”