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Plastic electronics could slash solar panel costs

By Barry Copping
Posted 12 April 2010
Princeton University engineers have developed a new technique for producing electricity-conducting plastics that could reduce the costs of manufacturing solar panels.

The plastics offer a low-cost alternative to indium tin oxide, an expensive conducting material currently used in the panels, according to the researchers. Translucency and malleability properties are also good.

“Conductive polymers have been around for a long time, but processing them to make something useful degraded their ability to conduct electricity,” said Yueh-Lin Loo, associate professor of chemical engineering at Princeton University, who led the research team.

She added: “We have figured out how to avoid this trade-off. We can shape the plastics into a useful form while maintaining high [electrical] conductivity.”

The research holds promise for producing new types of electronic device and new ways of manufacturing existing technologies, but has been hampered by an anomalous loss of electrical conductivity associated with mouldable plastics.

“People didn't understand what was happening,” said Loo, who co-wrote the paper. 'We discovered that in making the polymers mouldable, their structures are trapped in a rigid form, which prevented electrical current from travelling through them.”

Once they understood the underlying problem, Loo and her colleagues developed a way to “relax” the polymer structure by treating it with an acid after they were processed into the desired form. They were then able to make a plastic transistor using a low-cost printing technique.

Loo said the technique could potentially be scaled up for mass production: “This is a big deal. You could distribute the plastics in cartridges the way [inkjet] printer ink is sold, and you wouldn't need exotic machines to print the patterns.”

The Princeton findings were published online in the March issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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