Could Plastic Help Produce Cheaper Solar Power?

The UCLA team isn't the only one pushing the limits of polymer solar cells. Recently, a team of scientists at the New Mexico State University in Las Cruces collaborating with counterparts at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., reached similar efficiency milestones with its own unique plastic solar cell.

By combining a polymer material with so-called "buckyballs" -- carbon atoms that are shaped like round cages and can conduct electrons efficiently -- that team says it was able to produce an organic cell with a 5.2 percent conversion efficiency.

Hot Times Ahead?

"I think the field is really heating up now," says Seamus Curran, an assistant professor of nanotechnology and one of the members who helped develop the experimental solar cell at New Mexico State University. "I would be surprised if we don't break 10 percent within five years."

And if scientists such as Yang and Curran can reach that goal, they envision that organic solar cells could really take off -- and in places where traditional photovoltaic cells haven't been used before.

For example, says Yang, "In many high-rise buildings, the windows are tinted to cut down on the amount of light that enters and heats a room -- that way the air conditioning doesn't have to work so hard to cool it. Our [solar] cell -- which is translucent -- won't produce enough electricity to run the office. But it will reduce the [amount of] light that enters and produce enough power to run the basics -- charge a cell phone -- and reduce dependency on power grids and fossil fuels."

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