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Could 3D Printing Utterly Change Solar Panel Technology?

3D printing may make traditional flat solar panels obsolete in favor of more efficient technology.

The sun is a gargantuan, constant, free source of clean energy and in the era of climate disruption caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the sun’s energy promise is glowingly exciting.

The sheer amount of energy available from the sun presents the unique challenge of how and where to store it all. Current solar panel technology has serious shortcomings, which has had a “chilling effect” on the industry; something we can’t afford. According to The Guardian, John J. Licata, chief energy strategist at Blue Phoenix, the developing technology of 3D printing may change this.

3D printing, sometimes known as additive manufacturing (AM) is the process by which an automated printer follows a digital design to create a tangible, three-dimensional (3D) object by repeatedly laying deposits of materials like glass, silicon, plastic, resin or ceramic on top of each other until completion. The fact that AM works off of a digital design instead of an assembly line—like traditional manufacturing—represents tremendous savings in shipping because the product, in this case 3D solar panels, can be created anywhere there is a 3D printer.

The 3D photovoltaic (PV) solar panel can produce more energy than conventional flat panels. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it may be able to capture up to 20 percent more sunlight. 3D PV can do this because its use of copper, indium, gallium and selenide makes it more efficient. It’s also less complex and weighs less. These advantages may be enough to turn PV energy doubters into believers, therefore encouraging the investment of additional resources into the project.

Some raw materials used to make flat solar panels include glass, polysilicon and indium. These are expensive and they end up costing more when a significant fraction of them are lost as “waste” in traditional manufacturing. The radically more efficient and precise 3D printing manufacturing method could cut production costs by as much as 50 percent. These savings can then be passed on to the consumer, making the switch from fossil fuels to solar energy more appealing than ever.

Licata believes that 3D printing of PV cells can help expand its market beyond home energy, the use most popularly associated with solar.

Licata explained, “[It’s] my view 3D printing can produce extremely thin solar cells which can be printed on untreated paper, plastic or fabric rather than expensive glass. Therefore the advanced ability to create flexible solar panels at a lighter weight could have bigger positive implications for wearable hi-tech clothing, radios and future electronics.”

3D printing’s potential for PV is paradigmatic. It’s possible that tomorrow the eyesore of flat PV panels will be gone and a whole new energy infrastructure will be in place as ubiquitous as digital technology has become today.

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Energy Digital Weekly