Solarmer Energy Continues to Make Gains in OPVs

By David Savastano

Organic photovoltaics, or OPVs, have drawn much interest. The potential to produce flexible solar cells, potentially though printing, to power consumer products is certainly an appealing one.

A heated vest using Solarmer's flexible plastic solar panels integrated into the back to extend battery life.
However, there have been drawbacks with OPVs. It is a relatively new discipline, and efficiencies and lifetimes have yet to match up with other thin-film technologies. Still, when these hurdles are overcome, OPV could be the ideal technology for consumer applications.

Solarmer Energy, Inc. is one of the leading innovators in the OPV field. Headquartered in El Monte, CA, Solarmer Energy was founded in 2006 with an eye toward commercializing technology developed at the NanoRenewable Energy Center at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA by Professor Yang Yang and his team. Solarmer Energy’s focus is on the consumer market, with applications ranging from smart fabrics to small scale applications, and potentially into the building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) market.

Solarmer Energy has enjoyed some strong accomplishments in the last few months. Solarmer Energy announced that it broke the plastic solar cell world record for a second consecutive time, reaching a cell efficiency of 7.6%, certified by the Newport Corporation's Technology and Applications Center's Photovoltaic (TAC-PV) Lab. According to Solarmer Energy, these solar panels will transform the renewable energy industry, because of their ability to drive cost down to 12-15 cents/kWh.

In August 2009, FlexTech Alliance awarded a $450,000 contract to Solarmer Energy to design and synthesize high efficiency donor polymer materials for use in OPVs. The company also announced that it is nearing completion of its new pilot production line.

One of the major questions regarding OPV is the relatively lower efficiency being achieved. With its latest accomplishment, Solarmer is right on schedule.

“Our efficiency goal has always been to reach approximately 8% in 2009,” said Dina Lozofsky, vice president, corporate development at Solarmer Energy. “There were times that this seemed an insurmountable threshold, which was certainly backed up by the fact that no one else had even come close to 7%. But we have always persevered and had faith in our R&D team.

Lozofsky added that the results show that OPV is indeed quickly becoming a viable technology.

“This is a very positive indicator for the OPV industry as a whole – I’m sure our colleagues get the same reactions we do, that OPV is so very far behind the rest of the solar industry in efficiency,” Lozofsky added. “But this is just the beginning of our path to >10%, which, when combined with the great cost effectiveness of OPV manufacturing, will put us way ahead of competing technologies.”

To achieve this efficiency, Solarmer is relying of its strong R&D background.

“Solarmer has a very strong technical team that continues to strive to improve our efficiency and other important aspects of our technology,” Lozofsky said. “Add to this our two academic collaborators, Prof. Yang Yang from UCLA and Prof. Luping Yu from University of Chicago, and you have a good recipe for success.”

The next steps are clear. First, the company wants to further improve its results, and then commercialize its products.

“We intend to continue to further develop the technology, improving the efficiency and developing the most cost-effective processes for manufacturing,” Lozofsky said.

As for production, Lozofsky said that Solarmer is in the process of building the pilot manufacturing line, complete with roll to roll productive capabilities, which the company expects to have operational in the first quarter of 2010. Commercialization should begin shortly.

“That line should be capable of small lot production for our first customers by the end of 2010,” Lozofsky added. “The line will enhance our ability to engage with customers because we will be able to show them the first finished products, not just lab scale devices. This will be a very important milestone for our company and will be an indicator of our future capabilities.

“We expect to use our pilot manufacturing line to supply our first customers, so we are very close to commercialization,” Lozofsky added. “We are in discussions with several consumer electronics companies and smart fabrics manufacturers, as well as potential partners in other application areas. Clearly the largest challenge remains the lifetime of the products – we continue to discuss possible solutions with partners and others in our industry. Although more work remains to be done, we expect that an 18 month lifetime for the first products available from our pilot line will be easily achievable and appropriate for our first applications.”

With all of its accomplishments, it’s easy to see why Solarmer Energy is looking forward to the coming year.

“Our optimism definitely continues to grow,” Lozofsky concluded. “We are getting positive feedback from the market, particularly as we get closer to manufacturing and are able to continue to push the envelope on efficiency.”