From plastic money to plastic electricity

Printing solar cells. Credit: Tracey Nicholls, CSIRO
Printing solar cells. Credit: Tracey Nicholls, CSIRO

Tomorrow’s solar panels could bear an uncanny likeness to Australia’s polymer banknotes.

In fact, the first prototypes of a new kind of solar panel are being printed on the same printing presses that print Australia’s money.

The research team are confident that within five years these plastic solar panels will start appearing on windows, shade clothes and roofs across Australia.

And that will just be the start.

They say that just ten tonnes of their plastic could produce as much energy as a nuclear power station—once it’s converted into 100,000 kilometres of solar cells.

The idea grew from the invention of light emitting plastics also known as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). These are now appearing in mobile phones and in a new generation of flat screen televisions. The technology was then reversed—to create low-toxicity light-absorbing plastic electronics.

But how best to road-test the technology? In 1988 Australia started using polymer banknotes. This fraud-proof ‘paper’ money has proved to be extremely durable and is now used in over 25 countries. So it was a natural partner for the photosynthetic plastics.

The solar cells are being developed by a consortium comprising CSIRO, The University of Melbourne, Monash University and Securency Ltd. The project is supported by the Victorian Government through an Energy Technology Innovation Strategy Sustainable Energy Research and Development grant.