Researchers at the University of Notre Dame are working on a novel one-coat solar cell paint that they claim is “sun-believable.” The concept may seem strange; ie. a solar cell that you can just paint onto a surface, really? When we think solar cell, the image comes to mind of a bluish-coloured square of rigid silicon lined with metal contact fingers and certainly not a bucket of Benjamin Moore’s “Burnt Sienna” with eggshell finish.  However, in both appearance and physical application, this solar cell paint may have more in common with the latter than the former.

So what does one do with solar cell paint? Paint it on your car or maybe your house? What about bus terminals, fire hydrants, public buildings, etc.? The possibilities seem endless but perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves here. The researchers claim that this is just the sort of “transformative” technology that is necessary to bring solar energy generation into the realm of economic viability but it doesn’t appear as though they are speculating as to how this paint could be applied outside the realm of familiar solar cell/module processing.

The benefit of solar cell paint for standard solar cell processing seems to be that it uses relatively cheap materials and is straightforward to apply. It really is just painted onto a conductive surface in one coat with a brush, followed by a relatively low-temperature heat treatment. It’s that simple. The downside is that the efficiency of this solar paint is currently quite low (around 1%). However, that may just be indicative of the fact that there is still plenty left to optimize.

We’ll see where the technology goes but with a growing interest in solar-integrated green-buildings it seems at least somewhat possible that solar paint may have some role to play in tomorrow’s structures. We already have solar shingles… is solar paint the natural step forward?

(For a proper explanation of how this solar cell paint works please visit the original article: “Sun-Believable Solar Paint. A Transformative One-Step Approach for Designing Nanocrystalline Solar Cells.” Matthew P. Genovese, Ian V. Lightcap, and Prashant V. Kamat. ACS Nano (2011).)

-Erik Janssen

(Engineering Physics, MASc, Year 2 at McMaster University)