As low cost options for manufacturing photovoltaic (PV) cells on flexible substrates mature, more facilities dedicated to producing flexible thin film PV are constructed, such as the new plant opened by Global Solar this week in Germany.
These PV cells manufactured on flexible substrates are not only useful when combined with flexible surfaces such as membranes or fabric. There are many rigid applications where flexible PV cells are desired because they are lightweight. These applications provide opportunities to combine plastics with solar, two of which are now timely to consider.
Processes for integrating into molds
The first opportunity is integrating PV into a plastic component producing a single piece or pieces that fit seamlessly together by design. Flexible PV manufacturers such as Konarka, PowerFilm Solar, Unisolar, and Global Solar are now working with their customers to elegantly integrate solar power into a variety of new product designs. Their customers design truck bodies, train, golf cart or cart roofs, building materials, or cell phones with integrated PV cells.
Plastics manufacturers with capabilities and ideas about how to build solar cells into their molds and other processes will offer durability and design advantages to their customers that make integrated PV the most desirable option for new applications.
Lightweight mounting options
The second opportunity is related to mounting lightweight solar cells to various surfaces and components. Some flexible solar cells are secured to a surface with adhesives, but in applications where adhesives can't be used or the cell won't be folded or rolled, plastic or other materials can offer both mechanical durability and weight savings over metal on assemblies, connectors, or mounting structures.
One flexible PV cell manufacturer is working with a customer who is considering fiberglass and other materials in addition to corrugated metal as a backing material for a lightweight roofing product that is mechanically mountable to different structures. Many others are at the stage where they are working on similar product designs, and each variation of materials and design will require different components for mounting, many of which could be plastic.
In either of these opportunities, there are numerous ways for plastics manufacturers to add value to this growing PV market. For plastics processors, thermoformers, and other additive manufacturers considering serving the flexible solar market, now is the time.
About the author: Debbie Sniderman writes, owns, and consults with VI Ventures, an R&D and manufacturing consulting company for renewable energy products and technologies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.