The solar industry has experienced massive growth in the past few years as technological advancements have made solar panels more affordable and efficient.
Researchers at the University of Newcastle (UON) in Australia recently combined solar with another new technology, 3D printing, to make getting power from the sun even more accessible and effective.
How It Works
With 3D printing, you can create almost anything that you have a blueprint and a large enough machine for. And it doesn’t just print plastic replicas. You can create real, functional items. Anything from parts for machinery to human organs to houses could potentially be printed using the technology.
The team at UON, led by Professor Paul Dastoor, created an electronic, conductive ink as well as a process for printing that substance onto clear, thin, laminated sheets. The sheets are flexible yet durable enough that it can be rolled up for transportation.
The solar film is light enough that it can be attached to roofs and walls with Velcro. To install the sheet, you simply roll it out onto the surface you want to attach it to.
One of the major barriers to the adoption of solar energy has consistently been cost. While prices have dropped significantly in recent years due to improvements in technology and financial incentives from both government and utility companies — like a 30 percent credit on your tax return — the cost of installation can still be too high for some
3D printing could help lower that barrier to entry. With the new 3D-printed solar technology, production cost is around just $1 for each square foot. Professor Dastoor’s solar film is efficient too, which makes solar even more affordable.
UON installed the solar sheets on their campus in order to study their performance. So far, the findings have been promising. Researchers have found that the 3D-printed solar tech generated electricity more consistently than standard panels even with cloud cover and in low-light situations. The film has even been able to produce small amounts of power from moonlight.
The fact that the solar film is lightweight and flexible means it can be transported more easily than non-pliable solar panels. It can be rolled up, allowing large amounts of the stuff to be shipped in small spaces.
It can also be printed relatively quickly from any properly equipped 3D printer. This, as well as the ease with which it can be transported, means it could potentially have applications in disaster relief situations and be used to provide power to remote communities.
The technology could also, of course, benefit the environment by making it easier and more feasible for people to get their energy from the sun, which does not directly create carbon emissions and utilizes a renewable resource as opposed to a finite and harmful one.
The technology has already piqued the interest of a commercial partner – CHEP, a global logistics company. CHEP and UON are planning to install the material at one of its facilities during the next financial year. Professor Dastoor also recently demonstrated his project at Pacprint, a printing convention in Melbourne, Australia.
For large-scale rollouts of 3D-printed solar sheets, you’d need industrial-sized 3D printers. For smaller, residential projects, however, a relatively small personal 3D printer may do. This would take the power out of the hands of large utility companies and give it to the consumer. Solar panels already do this to an extent by allowing residential customers to generate their own power. If people could create and install their own solar panels, it would take this even further.
If people can print their own solar material, they could also customize those products to their own needs. Solar panels could be engineered to be installed in more obscure places than the rooftops of homes and potentially provide power to remote facilities. Provided that solar technology continues to improve or that these isolated facilities wouldn’t need large amounts of power, people may even be able to avoid connecting to the grid entirely.
While these ideas are the result of some speculation, this new 3D-printed solar technology does create the potential for them to actually work. Dastoor’s project takes advantage of technologies from two industries that are likely to grow significantly and change the world in noteworthy ways in the near future. The result of combining solar and 3D printing certainly has the potential to make some substantial changes in our world.