Paul Dastoor: In sunshine or in shadow

21 Sep 2017

Author: Joan Hardtke

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Solar panels as thin as a sheet of transparency plastic. Solar panels printed with electronic inks that conduct electricity. Solar panels that can work anywhere – in sunshine or shadow, on rooftops or on walls – converting light into energy. This is what Professor Paul Dastoor of Australia’s University of Newcastle, has made a reality.
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Even as a small boy growing up in the UK, Paul Dastoor gave a lot of thought to a specific problem way beyond his years:  how to supply the world with energy.

‘When I was at school I was worried that we would run out of energy,’ he explains. 

Now, as Professor of Physics heading the Priority Research Centre for Organic Electronics at Australia’s University of Newcastle, Paul Dastoor is a long way towards answering that problem – at least in part. 

Printable solar technology, unveiled at a demonstration site at the University, has the capacity to make energy in the form of electricity both cheaper and more accessible.

Researchers have developed electronic inks made from non-toxic carbon based materials which are then printed onto plastic sheets to create solar panels; the semiconducting polymers in the inks create a layer that converts light into electricity.

And Australia is a world leader in this field. 

‘But it hasn’t happened overnight,’ says Professor Dastoor. ‘We’ve been persevering with this technology for over 20 years now.’

Solar Vision

Professor Dastoor says that his vision to manufacture printed solar panels at low cost has always been part of his drive to make this sustainable energy a reality.

‘What has evolved over time has been the recognition both that we can do it and, most importantly, that we’re going to have to do it ourselves.

‘While we focused on the fundamental science during the first few years on this project, it gradually started to dawn on us that if we didn’t attempt to scale up the manufacture, we didn’t think anyone else would.

‘So in 2011 we established a large-scale printing laboratory here at Newcastle which gave us the ability to synthesise all the raw materials and fabricate the solar modules ourselves. This centre is unique in the sense that we can go all the way from fundamental studies to pilot scale manufacture.’

The team at Newcastle University – over thirty strong – can bring forth a wide range of skills to tackle the problems of solar technology. 

‘We have physicists, chemists, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, computational engineers – you name it, we have it,’ says Professor Dastoor. Half the team is Australian, half international. ‘We have full-time researchers and PhD students. For example, I’m currently supervising six PhD students from Iraq.’

Up on the roof

At the beginning of this year the research team installed the first 100 squares of printed solar panels on the roof of the Medical Sciences building at Newcastle University, one of just three comparable sites on this scale in the world.

‘We’re testing the durability of the printed solar panels in real weather conditions,’ Professor Dastoor says.

The panels are so light that they are fixed to the walls and roof of the building with Velcro strips.

Made of robust PET, plastic film that is less than 0.1 of a millimeter thick, the panels can even be ‘recycled’. ‘You can melt and reform the plastic,’ Professor Dastoor says.

The electronic ink used in the printing of the panels is such a strong absorber of light that only a small amount is needed for each sheet. ‘And the makeup of the inks is simple,’ he notes. ‘We specifically don’t use complicated polymers so that we can minimise costs.’ 

Making energy easy

Professor Dastoor points out that the ease, low cost and speed with which this technology can be deployed means that it can be considered for multiple uses apart from obvious commercial applications.

And because the printed solar panels are so light and can be printed so quickly, they are also ideal for disaster relief and recovery applications, particularly in powering temporary emergency bases. ‘The material can be safely air-dropped and it’s very easily installed,’ he notes.

Professor Dastoor says that no other renewable energy can be manufactured as rapidly. ‘Our lab scale printer can easily produce hundreds of metres of material per day,’ he says. ‘Using a commercial-scale printer, this could increase to hundreds of kilometres a day. And, if you had just ten of these printers operating around the clock, we could print enough material to deliver power to a thousand homes a day.’

Printing energy to keep costs low

Professor Dastoor expects that the manufacture of these materials is going to come in at an extraordinary low cost. ‘Our calculations show that production will work out at less than $10 a square metre.

‘I joke that you can’t buy carpet for that price,’ he says.

While the team’s printed solar panels are not at the commercial stage yet, Professor Dastoor points out that modelling has been done to show that the production can be economic. 

‘Everything thus far has indicated that we’re on the right track. ‘For example, our economic modelling showed that if we made the inks ourselves we could drop the price by a factor of a hundred. So we did that, and we saw the price came down by two orders of magnitude.’

Professor Dastoor reports that the team now has a number of commercial partners ready to build the first commercial demonstration site, and they hope to have several international sites completed within eighteen months.

‘Our vision for the future?’ asks Professor Dastoor. ‘Because the panels are so light in weight, because they’re so adaptable to different light levels, and because of the eventual low cost, our vision is that every single roof of every single building of every single city in the world could be a possible location for these printed solar panels. 

‘And just think what that could mean…’

Find out more about Paul Dastoor's work at the University of Newcastle.