OPV Manufacturers See Growing Opportunities in the Market

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the field of organic photovoltaics (OPV). The ability to produce photovoltaic systems utilizing organic materials has clear benefits in terms of cost and production, and by producing OPV on flexible substrates such as plastic, would permit uses that silicon-based glass solar cells can not.

Photo courtesy of Heliatek GmbH.
As a relatively new technology, OPV does not have the results in terms of efficiency or lifetime as do more established solar technologies. However, improvements are occurring all the time, and the potential uses for OPV don’t have the same requirements as do utility-based or roof-based solar panels. As a result, there is growing interest in the technology.

“The interest in OPV is very high,” said Steffanie Rohr, head of marketing for Heliatek GmbH, a spin out from the Technical University of Dresden (IAPP) and the University of Ulm. “We have many leading industry players from various market segments that approach us for joint development activities regarding technology and applications.”

Formed utilizing technology developed from Prof. Sir Richard Friend's team at Cavendish Lab of Cambridge University, Eight19 is focusing its efforts on printed flexible plastic solar technology, and is presently in the development phase as the company implements its reel-to-reel solar cell manufacturing technology at its Cambridge facility.

“This is more challenging to begin with but pays dividends in the mid-term as it forces the development of efficient, high speed manufacturing processes based on advanced printing and coating techniques,” said Eight19 CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth.

Photo courtesy of Konarka Technologies.
One of the challenges for OPV is developing the manufacturing know-how to produce flexible cells. Solar Press already has high-speed, low cost roll-to-roll coating and printing facilities in operation, working with manufacturing partners who have the expertise in printing and coating, including gravure.

“OPV was new science that was enabled by basic work which led to recognition of one of Konarka’s founders, Dr. Alan Heeger, with a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2000. As with many basic discoveries, it took time to develop the technology to bring it to the market,” said Ken McCauley, vice president at Konarka Technologies. “Lifetime has been pretty well addressed, and we are always looking to improve performance. As a result, there are products that will be out in the field in the next few month and years that will be very exciting.”

Key Markets for OPV

OPV is already playing an important role in a number of areas. For example, Rohr noted that one key product could be semi-transparent glass with integrated OPV. Konarka has commercialized numerous products, and is under discussions on many others. McCauley noted is the use of Konarka’s OPV systems in San Francisco’s bus shelters.

“In San Francisco, our materials are integrated into bus shelters around the city,” McCauley said. “Our material is integrated into the roofs and powers wi-fi, LED lighting, police and fire emergency phones and bus announcements as well as an integrated outdoor backlit advertising display. It’s a great fit, and we have discussions underway with a lot of cities.”

Photo courtesy of Konarka Technologies.
Jonathan Halls, chief technology officer for Solar Press, and Bransfield-Garth both believe that off-grid markets are important opportunities for low-cost technologies such as OPV, which could make off-grid power affordable for consumers.

“We have explored many application areas, looking for areas where OPV can have a really strong impact and where its performance is already sufficient for application,” Halls said. “We are focused on off-grid applications and do not compete with typical grid-tied PV. One such opportunity is in developing countries, where OPV-powered LED lighting offers an attractive alternative to kerosene lighting.”

“Printed plastic solar cells have many potential applications, from small ultra low power light harvesting devices such as remote sensors to large scale building integrated applications, for instance in semi-transparent, colored architectural glass,” Bransfield-Garth said. “One of the most interesting is the rapidly growing emerging markets where the low cost, flexibility and inherent robustness of the cells makes them ideal for modest size but high volume off-grid applications.” 

The field of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), such as curtain wall, windows or canopies and awnings, is an area where OPV’s strengths can be utilized. McCauley noted that OPV suppliers have to be prepared for the questions that architects invariably ask.

“Architects typically ask four questions when they are considering integrating OPVs into their plans,” McCauley said. “Can it be transparent? What does it weigh per square foot or square meter? Can we do custom sizes? What colors does it come in. With Konarka, I now have good answers to all four questions. For example, we can now talk about lightweight transparent material in custom sizes and multiple colors that flow off of our process line.”

McCauley noted that customers don’t necessarily focus on OPV when they are looking for solutions for their applications. Instead, they want the technology that best suits their needs.

“Customers are just looking for the best technology for their project,” said McCauley. “We expand the menu that is available and can address areas that traditional PV companies can’t do as well. I like what we have to offer.”

Photo courtesy of Konarka Technologies.
“We are finding areas where we can bring added value,” McCauley added. “We have identified more than 10 areas where traditional PV solutions were not amenable to a specific application. OPV is lightweight, customizable, flexible and ultimately lower cost per unit area. In addition, the energy required to manufacture OPV is much less than conventional PV with energy payback on the order of two months, whereas traditional PV is on the order of two years to generate the energy equivalent that was required to manufacture the product. Another key difference is that, except in certain applications, OPV is not a finished product ready for the end user. Our customer base largely consists of OEMs, and with our application support, they determine the best way to integrate our products into theirs. I am quite optimistic that OPV will become more of a household term as our customers’ products reach the market in very visible ways.”

“OPV is best suited for lightweight, mobile applications (energy to go), but also for integrated larger solutions such as BIPV (building integrated) or AIPV (automtive integrated),” Rohr said. “In addition, it is very suitable for hot regions (sunbelt countries) due to its zero temperature coefficient.

“Heliatek works together with interested partners on projects where we see future potential,” Rohr added. “Our product and system development team supports the progress of these projects and serves as a link between the different departments. Our business development department is the interface to our customers - we follow a one face to the customer approach where our customers have one single contact partner at Heliatek. In meetings with customers there is always on business development and one technical employee present to answer questions quickly and to efficiently handle the projects.”

Advantages of OPV

OPV offers numerous advantages, most notably form factor, with the potential for much lower cost than other PV technologies in the future.

“The major advantages are its light weight and thin module structure,” Rohr said. “In addition, the various dimension offers an attractive design freedom. The homogeneous translucence that can be produced is also one of its key advantages. Regarding energy yield, the main advantages are its zero temperature coefficient, which is unique for this third generation technology, but also its excellent low light performance and its tolerance for various incident angles.

“Its only limitations nowadays are costs and lifetime when the module is not put between glass,” Rohr added. “Costs are only a matter of production volume, so this can be solved easily. Regarding lifetime for flexible modules, there is much progress on the barrier of the applied films - the major suppliers are working hard on this topic and have made much progress. In addition, we are also working on encapsulation concepts that will provide a longer lifetime for the modules.”

Halls said that Solar Press has already been able to achieve comparable efficiency rates to other OPV companies.

“Our efficiency is broadly equivalent to our competitors,” Halls said. “We are getting 7 to 7.5 percent on glass. Efficiencies on plastic are currently lower, but the gap is closing fast. Our technology is also very rugged and durable. We have the ability to custom manufacture, and can shape modules for specific applications.”

The option to customize OPV is a major benefit to some customers.

“We are bringing new features to the market that can be added seamlessly, and the design community really appreciates this,” McCauley said. “The manufacturing capability we have in place gives us a lot of flexibility. We are getting a warm reception from customers. One of the things that is exciting about OPV is that we are seeing a diversity of applications and customers. Many companies are seeking ways to differentiate their products and bring a new feature set to their market. The addition of PV functionality is one way to accomplish this.”

The Future for OPV

The possibilities for OPV are nearly endless, and industry leaders see the potential for OPV to be practically everywhere.

“The overriding issue is cost,” Halls added. “For OPV to work, it has to be low cost. OPV has an important space in the market, and we think it is on the cusp of being a winner.”

“The feedback from the market so far has been very encouraging. We remain very optimistic that OPV is on a strong upward path and will be viable commercially within the next two to three years,” Bransfield-Garth said. “Eight19 sees an exciting future for products made using advanced printing and coating techniques.”

“On a short term basis, the OPV market will develop gradually towards a mature technology,” Rohr said. “In the long term, the technology has the potential to transform one’s everyday living by providing truly green energy to everybody, wherever it is needed. This could really transform the PV market fundamentally. PV modules will not only be on roofs, but part of one’s everyday life.”

“We are optimistic that you will see OPV in a number of areas,” McCauley concluded. “We can generate power at the point of use, and it can be integrated seamlessly and become almost invisible. My vision is that OPV becomes ubiquitous, a part of everyday life and not just only on rooftops. It can be an elegant simplicity. It will permeate our lives."