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Exclusive: German company’s organic solar cell hits most bright spots

By Katrice R. Jalbuena

Exclusive: German company’s organic solar cell hits most bright spots
The BIPV sector is considered a promising future solar application market.

A Dresden-based company is covering several bases in the organic solar cell niche with which it hopes to make an impact in the building-integrated photovoltaics market - and beyond.

The company specializes in organic solar cells, photovoltaic devices that use thin layers of organic materials with semiconductor properties. In December last year they achieved a conversion efficiency of 9.8 percent for their product, as confirmed by the Fraunhofer ISE CalLab.

In the thin-film industry, average efficiencies can go as low as 4 percent, to a high 10 percent. And yet, Heliatek's 9.8 did not come by that easily, the company's executives tell EcoSeed.

According to Dr. Martin Pfeiffer, co-founder and chief technical officer, they have been working at continuously improving their technology since their founding in 2006.

"At that time, we were at an efficiency level of 4 percent," Mr. Pfeiffer said. "These five years, we made continuous progress. Every year, we could get one or more percent increase in efficiency."

Plus points

But the company suggests it's not just efficiency that counts these days, which is why it's banking on some other qualities.

The company says its cells are ultralight and ultrathin, which will allow them to be easily integrated or mounted on the facade of a building without the need for additional reinforcements.

Indeed, the company's executives say that while the company's first target market will be the consumer electronics sector, the ultimate goal is to become a leader in building-integrated photovoltaics.

"While your typical panel weighs between 10 to 15 kilograms per square meter, our panel is going to weigh only 0.5 kilograms per square meter. That's why we call it ultralight," explains and chief executive Thibaud Le Seguillon.

The reason is that the panels are also "ultrathin," at less than a millimeter of thickness. Heliatek uses a specially developed organic oligomer in their solar cell. These organic molecules are smaller than the polymers used in conventional solar cells but have a higher absorption coefficient.

"The higher absorption coefficient means you need only a small layer of our material to harvest the same amount of light," explained Mr. Pfeiffer. "In our case, we need less than 1 gram of material per square meter."

The BIPV sector is considered a promising future solar application market, with global think tank Pike Research forecasting annual wholesale revenues for the sector rising from $744 million in 2010 to nearly $4 billion in 2016.

But in order for this to occur, Pike cites the need for the aesthetics of technology to improve - in order for it to better seamlessly blend into a building's structure - as well as an improvement in efficiency to improve project return and payback periods.

Again, Heliatek says it has an answer to that. According to Mr. Le Seguillon, their material is able to produce semi-transparent modules, with the appearance of tinted glass much like you would see on a pair of sunglasses.

Mr. Le Seguillon says this last characteristic could give Heliatek solar cells an opportunity to integrate themselves into another technology that needs a steady power source - the automobile.

Big league

So is Heliatek truly ready for the big league? According to Mr. Le Seguillon, they are now on schedule for the commercial application of their organic solar cells by this year.

"We have been working on the manufacturing process over the last few years," Mr. Le Seguillon said. "Parallel to improving the efficiency, we are receiving the last piece of equipment of our first pilot line which will be up and running this summer."

"After we ramp up the pilot production line, in 2012, we are going to raise 50 million euros to finance a volume production line which is going to come on line in 2014," Mr. Le Seguillon told EcoSeed.

But the company could still face some competition when it comes to the efficiency, lightness and flexibility of more established thin-films.

A month after Heliatek achieved 9.8 percent efficiency, thin-film leader First Solar Inc., which uses cadmium telluride, achieved a record of 14.4 percent efficiency as verified by the United States Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab.

But technology head Mr. Pfeiffer says that aside from almost comparable efficiency levels, they still have some advantages, like being and a truly "green" product.

"Thin films use toxic materials and most are still mounted on glass so they're not as flexible or light," said Mr. Pfeiffer.

According to Mr. Pfeiffer, their modules will be built with 99 percent PET plastic, a little bit of aluminum and organic dyes which are easily recycled or disposed of.

"Several manufacturers are looking to integrate our modules into their vehicles," said Mr. Le Seguillon, without giving names.

He said the transparency of the modules is a big part of the appeal as that meant they could be molded to the cars' roof or even be integrated to the vehicles' windows without impacting visibility, a trait that should also serve it well in BIPV.

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