Where are we with 3D Printed Solar Panels?
With global temperatures rising at previously unseen rates, governments worldwide are looking more and more towards renewable energy as opposed to conventional fossil fuels. The vast field of renewable energy encompasses a wide variety of carbon neutral and carbon positive energy generation methods – the main ones being hydroelectric, wind, and solar.
On the other hand, 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is quickly becoming a mainstream production technique with applications in almost every sector imaginable. The manufacturing process brings its own set of environmental benefits to the table, so how has 3D printing affected the solar energy sector?
3D printing solar panels
Solar panels, also commonly known as photovoltaics, work by capturing the sun’s energy and converting it into usable electricity on the energy grid. Solar PV cells are usually made from layers of a semiconducting material, usually silicon, much like electronic devices. When UV shines on the material, electrons are loosened within the layers, creating a flow of electricity. While the cells don’t necessarily need direct sunlight to work, as they can work on a cloudy day, they do tend to work much better under strong sunlight.
Unfortunately, even cutting-edge solar cells are still held back by high costs and relatively low energy efficiency ratings. This is really where 3D printing (and its subsequent material capabilities) shines, as the technology has proven useful in improving both the performance and cost-efficiency of solar energy cells.
Cost savings and performance boosts with perovskite
Researchers at MIT have previously used 3D printing to reduce the production costs of solar panels by an incredible 50%. For the optimized constructions, the team made use of a material called perovskite, which is known to be a relatively cheap photovoltaic material when compared to glass, polysilicon, and indium. The calcium titanium oxide crystals deliver superconductive properties and have garnered a lot of interest beyond just the MIT labs in recent years.
A California-based company called T3DP has also leveraged the material in the past. Using its proprietary volumetric 3D printing process, T3DP was able to produce a set of perovskite-based solar panels which doubled the industry-standard energy capabilities of solar panels at the time. Clocking in at 36%, the panels proved the suitability of the material for the application, and the company now intends to develop its product to eventually reach around 50%.
So what’s the catch? Perovskite is a very difficult material to manufacture due to its fragility. Once it hardens into a solid structure, it often has difficulty maintaining its structural integrity and isn’t all that wear resistant. This is the main hurdle currently in the way of mass adoption, but organizations such as MIT and T3DP are working to jump it.
The future of 3D printed solar panels
On top of unlocking the novel material choice, there is something to be said about the geometric capabilities of 3D printing. With the ability to optimize photovoltaic structures with greater surface areas and major weight savings, additive manufacturing is indeed a very attractive production method for manufacturers in the space – both in terms of performance enhancements and cost reductions.
Perhaps in the coming years, if key barriers to entry are lifted, we could see 3D printed solar panels powering our major cities.
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