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Paint, spray or ink it on

January 12, 2010 - Lisa Sibley - Cleantech Group

In solar and batteries, thin--and sprayable--are in. Will brand new spray-on and inkjet printing tech of the last week supplement or replace existing solutions?

Clean technology companies and researchers are coming up with all sorts of ways these days to spray, paint, and ink on their technologies. But are these new innovations ready to be pumped out in large quantities?

Burtonsville, Md.-based New Energy Technologies (OTCBB:NENE) announced a new milestone yesterday in a patent-pending technology for spraying solar coatings onto see-through glass windows, allowing power generation. Though it's still early days for the new product, it could offer significant commercial production advantages for building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) over current thin-film technologies.

The key, as the company points out, is getting scaled up and fully developed (And protecting its IP.) It joints a host of others pursuing similar paint-on solar compounds, including researchers at Swansea Unversity in the UK and a partnership between JA Solar and Innovalight.

Last week, a group of Japanese scientists claimed they’ve come up with a lithium polymer battery that can be made using only printing technology (see Japanese scientists advance printable battery tech). The new flexible, lithium polymer battery is considered to be applicable for solar batteries, flexible displays, or being attached to curved surfaces.

And last August, University of Texas at Austin researchers came out with a CIGS-based paintable solar cell technology that could help to increase efficiencies and decrease manufacturing costs (see Texas researchers look to unleash spray-on solar cell potential).

They achieved proof-of-concept producing solar cells using tiny nanoparticle inks that allow them to be printed like newspaper or painted onto the sides of buildings or rooftops to absorb sunlight.

Lowell, Mass.-based solar company Konarka Technologies announced in 2008 it successfully conducted the first-ever demonstration of manufacturing solar cells by using inkjet printing (see Konarka demonstrates inkjet printed solar cells). Just last month, the company launched a pilot project to integrate its branded Power Plastic solar panels into the non-load bearing exterior walls of buildings.

Could BIPV, with solar on walls help forestall the need for new power plants? Will glass windows and doors supplement or replace solar panel rooftop arrays? The technologies continue to evolve and improve. Commercializing it at scale, and economically, however, are the tough part. Critics also point to low coversion efficiency.