Solarmer Energy Sees Excellent Potential for Plastic Solar Cells

Solarmer was founded on the principle that there must be a better way to provide energy to consumers for every day use

By David Savastano
Printed Electronics Now Co-Editor

The field of solar cells has drawn much attention from all corners, from government to financiers, and for good reason: The ability to generate power from solar energy could ultimately reduce dependence on petroleum and offer a much less expensive source of energy.

There are numerous companies developing technologies for solar cells. On one hand, there are the silicon-based technologies, which provide higher efficiencies but at far much greater cost. On the other hand, flexible solar cells are far less expensive to produce, although they do not attain higher efficiencies.

Typically, consumers think of solar cells as the large panels that convert sunlight into energy. However, solar cells can be used for much more, whether it is for rooftops, cars, umbrellas, clothing or countless other applications.

For many of these types of applications, conventional silicon-based solar cells likely would be both cost prohibitive and structurally difficult, as flexibility would be needed. However, thin film solar cells offer the needed flexibility, and the potential for printing solar cells, the lowest cost method of production, could bring countless solar-powered technologies right to consumers.

This is right where Solarmer Energy, Inc. fits in. A relative newcomer to the field, Solarmer Energy was founded in 2006 to commercialize technology developed at the NanoRenewable Energy Center at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA by Professor Yang Yang and his team. Solarmer Energy is supporting some of the research efforts at UCLA, and Dr. Yang is a scientific advisor.

The Consumer
Market for Solar Cells

Solarmer was founded on the principle that there must be a better way to provide energy to consumers for everyday use. Better, renewable, cost effective, cleaner and wireless energy. Solarmer wants to provide power any time, any where, to any one with minimal to no impact on the environment. This becomes more and more important as the energy needs of developing countries grow exponentially.
Solarmer is committed to developing and commercializing polymer solar cell technology, enabling many new applications that are not currently addressable with conventional silicon solar cell technology.
According to Solarmer, traditional silicon-based solar cells currently dominates the photovoltaic market with 90 percent market share. Still, the high costs of silicon and manufacturing silicon-based solar panels is significant. By contrast, the active plastics layer is extremely thin – only a few tenths of micrometer thick, or less than 1/1000 of silicon cell. This material cost is significantly lower. Meanwhile, printing is a low cost process.
The first major applications for this technology will likely be the fast-growing market for portable digital electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops and outdoor lifestyle applications. Building integrated photovoltaics, smart fabrics and smart-networks will soon follow.

“We can’t compete with silicon solar cells in terms of efficiency, but for us, it is about opening new markets where flexible solar cells can solve problems,” said Dina Lozofsky, vice president, IP development and strategic alliances at Solarmer.
“In terms of applications, our target is the consumer market, such as smart fabrics and small scale applications,” added Dr. Vishal Shrotriya, director of technology development for Solarmer.

Solarmer Energy Team

In order to advance their technologies, Solarmer Energy has built an experienced management team led by Edward T. J. Chen, the company’s chairman, CEO and founder, who has more than 30 years of entrepreneurial experience in the high-tech industry, notably as the founder and CEO of AMREL. Woolas Hsieh, president and founder, has more than 20 years of experience in investment banking and commercial banks.
Much of the company’s team comes from UCLA; Ms. Lozofsky was director of technology commercialization at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute. Prior to joining UCLA, she was an associate vice president in the Semiconductors & Optoelectronics Group at BTG International.
Dr. Shrotriya has been active in the field of organic electronic materials and devices for the last seven years, with a focus on organic photovoltaic cells and light emitting diodes. He earned his master’s and PhD degrees in materials science from UCLA.

New Technologies

As befits a new company, Solarmer Energy heavily emphasizes R&D; 16 of the company’s 21 employees are involved in research. Under Dr. Shrotriya’s leadership, Solarmer’s R&D team launched operations in July, 2007 and has grown to a fully operational R&D effort occupying 6,000 square feet of lab and office space in El Monte, CA. The R&D team is led by Solarmer’s director of research, Dr. Gang Li, and three research team leaders. This team has its origins in the research lab of Professor Yang.
Most recently, Solarmer Energy showcased its plastic solar cells at Printed Electronics USA 2008. The solar cells generated enough power to drive a small electrical device under bright indoor lighting conditions.

“We had a very positive reaction both at our booth and during follow-up  talks,” Ms. Lozofsky said.
“We are very excited about demonstrating our progress towards commercially viable plastic solar cells,” said Dr. Shrotriya. “With our latest advances, it is easy to see that these cells will be able to power small portable electronic devices in the near future.”
Solarmer has reported that its highest efficiency polymer solar cells have demonstrated 6 percent efficiency, and they plan to seek NREL certification of these results in the near future. While the translucent and flexible cells have not yet attained this level of efficiency, the company’s goals are to prove feasibility with these early samples.
“The true distinguishing feature of our technology is our ability to make the solar cells translucent. This quality will allow for very attractive cells in a variety of colors that will enhance the look and feel of any product, opening up a large number of consumer applications for this technology,” said Woolas Hsieh, president of Solarmer.
Solarmer intends to demonstrate a first prototype of its plastic solar cells technology by the end of the third quarter of 2009.
“By the third quarter of this year, we are targeting 8 percent efficiency cells with a three-year lifetime on a 50 sqcm area,” Ms. Lozofsky said. To meet demand, she noted that the company will start to shift focus to manufacturing, with an eye toward having a pilot line fully operational by mid-2010. “This will allow us to validate one of the most important features of our plastic solar cell technology, that it will be low cost,” Ms. Lozofsky added.
There are even further developments coming from UCLA and Solarmer. Reporting in the Nov. 26, 2008 edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Dr. Yang  and his colleagues described the design and synthesis of a new polymer, or plastic, for use in solar cells that has significantly greater sunlight absorption and conversion capabilities than previous polymers.
The research team found that substituting a silicon atom for carbon atom in the backbone of the polymer markedly improved the material’s photovoltaic properties. This silole-containing polymer can also be crystalline, giving it great potential as an ingredient for high-efficiency solar cells.
“With the reality of today’s energy crisis, a new-game changing technology is required to make solar cells more popular,” Dr. Yang said. “We hope that our newly synthesized polymer can eventually be used on solar cells far beyond their current rooftop applications. Imagine a house or car covered and powered by flexible solar films. Our dream is to see solar cells used everywhere.”
“This is all cutting edge technology, and what is really exciting about it is that it could go from lab to market in a relatively short time,” Ms. Lozofsky concluded.