Renewable Energy? Just Click Print

The world of 3D printing has always been an undoubted technology of tomorrow, ‘molecular assemblers’ are one of the oldest stereotypes science fiction has to […]

The world of 3D printing has always been an undoubted technology of tomorrow, ‘molecular assemblers’ are one of the oldest stereotypes science fiction has to offer, and 3D printers seem to fit the description pretty well. But advances in the speed and cost of these futuristic machines are few and far between, and for many people, they are nothing more than yet another addition to the tomorrow that will never come, destined to spend an eternity on the cusp of reality alongside flying cars and robot butlers as nothing more than a plaything for overzealous millionaires. Now, a team of Australian scientists have found a way to print A3-sized solar panels “like money” onto a lightweight, flexible plastic film, and this ability to print flexible solar panels could revolutionise the accessibility of renewable energy.

A3 sized, flexible solar cells

The solar panels the research team have invented are feeble in comparison to their non-printed counterparts, generating only fifty watts per square metre as opposed to 200, but it isn’t the power they generate that people are focusing on. Solar panels are currently both expensive to build and expensive to install, and while 3D printing is still far from being a cheap technology, the ability to print a working solar panel onto a flexible film would give these solar sheets have an unparalleled level of versatility, a flexibility and low weight that means they could be attached to almost anything without much difficulty. The team in charge think near-term uses could include printing onto the backs of laptops or mobile phones, car bodies and even buildings, and they are currently speaking to companies interested in incorporating the panels into skyscraper windows.

With this potential advancement in renewable energy production, 3D printing could also see a rebrand. Until now, it has been thought of as a method to fabricate objects, a way to build models layer by layer from a digital blueprint. The printed objects tend to be precise replicas, prototypes which are used to refine the design of a device made by conventional methods; the functionality of the printed model is generally an afterthought. But with the working gun printed earlier this year in Texas and now these solar panels, 3D printed tools could see utility becoming a major consideration in the initial design stages. Creating useful gadgets as opposed to functionless models is the push 3D printing has always needed to break into the consumer market, but until now, the jump has been too costly to make. These solar panels provide a neat segue between 2D and 3D printing without having the steep price normally characteristic of 3D printers.

 print A3-sized solar panels “like money”

The technology still needs a lot of development. But when the power generation of the panels improves to a competitive level, the worlds of both 3D printing and renewable energy are set to see an interesting change, one which could give both areas of science an impressive jump forward and bring them significantly closer to the mass consumer marketplace.

Andrew Smith

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