US-based developer of plastic solar cells, Solarmer Energy Inc. is on track to complete a commercial-grade prototype of plastic solar cells for portable electronic devices that will incorporate technology invented at the University of Chicago. The prototype, a cell measuring eight square inches (50 square centimeters), is expected to achieve 8 percent efficiency and to have a lifetime of at least three years. The technology invented at University of Chicago by Luping Yu, Professor in Chemistry, and Yongye Liang, a Ph.D. student is that of a new semiconducting material called PTB1 which converts sunlight into electricity. The active layer of PTB1 is a mere 100 nanometers thick, the width of approximately 1,000 atoms. Synthesizing even small amounts of the material is a time-consuming, multi-step process.
Silicon-based solar cells dominate the market today; however, industry experts see a promising future for low-cost, flexible solar cells. The University of Chicago licensed the patent rights to the technology to Solarmer last September which covers several polymers under development in Yu's laboratory, said Matthew Martin, a project manager at UChicagoTech, the University's Office of Technology and Intellectual Property. A patent is pending. Compared to other polymers that have achieved similar efficiency levels, the main advantage of the Chicago technology is its simplicity in development to become a commercially viable product. Solarmer has entered into a sponsored research agreement with the University to provide additional support for a postdoctoral researcher in Yu's lab. The company looks forward to the identification of new polymers as a result of this collaboration, Lozofsky said.