Conductive Plastic Solar Cells: So Much Hope & Hype

The development path of electrically conductive polymers is littered with Nobel prizes, highly optimistic press releases, ambitious startups, tons of venture capital money, and at least two high-profile  bankruptcies.

Konarka Technologies, a 2001 spin-off from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, built

Flexibility is great, but the economics just aren't there. (Konarka)

Flexibility is great, but the economics just weren’t there. (Konarka)

photovoltaic products using polymer-fullerene solar cells. The company struggled to increase efficiencies (conversion of sunlight to electric power) so that the photovoltaic could be commercially successful. Technical questions about the plastics also remained unanswered. Two years ago, the company declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and liquidated.

Plextronics, a 2002 Carnegie Mellon spinoff, also attracted significant venture capital funding to finance development of its technology based on electrically conductive plastics. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year and is now part of Solvay America.

Now comes a new, very hopeful press release from Purdue University.

“An emerging class of electrically conductive plastics called ‘radical polymers’ may bring low-cost, transparent solar cells, flexible and lightweight batteries, and ultrathin antistatic coatings for consumer electronics and aircraft,” starts the press release.

Purdue says that researchers have created a polymer with the acronym PTMA that is about 10 times more electrically conductive than common semiconducting polymers.

“It’s a polymer glass that conducts charge, which seems like a contradiction because glasses are usually insulators,” says Bryan Boudouris, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. “We make billions of tons of plastic every year. So imagine if you could produce that same kind of material at that same scale but now it has electronic properties.”

The American Chemical Society has recorded a series of podcast with Boudouris, accessible at http://pubs.acs.org/page/mamobx/audio/index.html.

The research has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Hopefully this one will stay in the lab a little longer than previous ventures.

Purdue's new super radical.

Purdue’s new super radical.

About Doug Smock

Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Senior Technical Editor Design News
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