Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Konarka's Cheap "Plastic Power"

Thin-film solar technology is a promising field that aims to present cheap solar power. One startup, Konarka of Lowell, Massachusetts, has a somewhat different twist: Plastic Power, thin plastic (as opposed to metal foil) that rolls up like film for a camera. It can be taken anywhere and used to recharge you cell phone or laptop.

This sounds minute and beige, but Konarka holds many ambitions. Below are excerpts from the article (link).

Lowell-based Konarka (named after a temple dedicated to a Hindu sun god) currently sells small amounts of its Power Plastic for use on outdoor umbrellas and tote bags that will recharge a cellphone whether you're on the go or on the beach. That potential impressed investors, who have put $145 million into the closely held venture, including a recent $45 million in funding from French oil giant Total. "We believe the solar market in the U.S. will accelerate between 2010 and 2015, and we need to be ready for this," says Philippe Boisseau, president of Total's gas and power business. "By then Konarka products could become mass market." Konarka won't disclose its revenue.

Sure, solar chips have been used to power calculators, watches, and other small gadgets for years. But most are made of silicon, the material found in computer chips - and they are rigid, fragile, and expensive to manufacture. (Think clean rooms with skilled techies in space suits.) Konarka's film rolls off a converted printing press that used to belong to Polaroid. It prints a secret plastic ink onto rolls of thin film. As it absorbs light, the polymer ink emits electrons, producing electricity.

In a few years, Hess says, Konarka will have perfected a translucent version of its product that could be built into the windows of skyscrapers, generating enough power to run whole buildings. It is also working on projects for the Department of Defense to make solar-power tents that recharge soldiers' equipment in remote locations. Eventually the technology could even be woven into clothing - imagine slipping your cellphone into your pocket to recharge it.

It's not perfect...

Power Plastic, however, does have its drawbacks. So far it is not nearly as efficient or durable as traditional silicon panels. Konarka's cells convert about 6% of the light that hits them into electricity, whereas silicon solar panels typically are 16% to 20% efficient. Hess says Konarka hopes to double its efficiency within a few years. Power Plastic also doesn't last nearly as long - about five years as opposed to more than 30 with silicon panels. But Hess argues that it doesn't matter because his product will be cheap to replace.

- Brewskie

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