What are flexible solar panels?
Solar energy has advanced a lot over the past few decades with more and more people encouraging its use for generating electricity. The various awareness programs about this renewable source of energy along with several investments has made it slightly affordable, if not cheap. The biggest advantage of using solar panels to generate electricity is that the required equipment starts paying for itself over the years and is thus, a great to have.
Most solar panels used today are in crystalline form and require a protective coating like glass to be eligible for its use. This makes the solar panels large and bulky to install and carry. Though these panels may be perfect for one’s home or office, the same cannot be used for generating portable power, or at boats, or even RVs.
The latter has been made possible by the research and development of flexible solar panels, which are printed on a variety of thin film materials. This makes the solar cells extremely lightweight, flexible, and easy to install at places where one needs portable energy. The technology, though new and slightly expensive, is getting accepted all over the
Flexible solar panels were first researched and designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they manufactured these panels by depositing the photovoltaic material on flexible surfaces. The surfaces can be anywhere from a thin plastic film to an ordinary paper, and the cells are deposited on them with the help of various chemical layers like silicon, CIGS, or CdTe. Another way to deposit solar cells on a sheet is to use oxidized chemical vapor deposition process, but the technology is still under research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Top Ways We Make Flexible Solar Panels?
The amorphous (thin film) solar panels are the most popular among flexible solar power systems right now where the solar cells can be deposited on plastic, metal foil, or thin glass material. The solar cells can also be deposited on a material as thin as an ordinary paper, though the process for the same is still under research. The technologies used for manufacturing thin film solar panels are:
Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS)
CIGS is a common technology used for flexible solar panels where the where a thin layer of copper, indium, gallium and selenide is placed on thin film materials like plastic, metal foil, or glass. The electrodes are present in the front and the back of the panel in order to collect current. The high absorption factor of the material requires thinner film for putting up solar cells and thus, makes it a very common technology for making flexible solar power systems. The panels give their best performance while using glass as the thin-film base.
Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)
Cadmium Telluride makes use of a thin semiconductor layer design to absorb sunlight and convert it into energy. The photovoltaic cell technology leaves the smallest carbon footprint and has the shortest energy payback time of all the methods. It is also the only thin film solar cell technology that costs lesser than the traditional crystalline silicone approach. The Cadmium Telluride solar panels are the most bought thin film panels. However, the toxicity of Cadmium and both of them being rare materials could be a cause of concern for the technology.
Amorphous Silicon (a-Si)
The non-crystalline form of Silicon, the amorphous Silicon is deposited onto materials like flexible substrates, glass, metal, and plastic to form flexible solar panels. The semiconductor material has the lowest of efficiency among the other technologies, but is the most environment friendly as it does not contain any toxic substances. But the lower efficiency factor has made it lose its significance in comparison to the traditional crystalline silicone cells. The other forms of thin film solar panels, CIGS and CdTe are also more successful as compared to the amorphous silicon.
Oxidative Chemical Vapor Deposition Process
Though still under research, the chemical vapor deposition process is a coming of age technology that’ll try to print photovoltaic cells on material thinner than plastic or metal sheets. A prototype of the same has already been developed at MIT but hasn’t been commercialized yet due to its low efficiency. The process requires the coating of a conformal conductive polymer electrodes with oxidative chemical vapor, thus the name of the process.
The vapor deposition is done at a temperature range of lesser than 120 degrees Celsius which results in a voltage of about 50V. This is enough to turn on power appliances that utilize less energy. The cost of the product is estimated to be that of a photo printed from an inkjet printer.
Advantages of flexible solar panels
The flexible solar panels are best suited for the needs of portable sources of energy and can be used with vehicles like RVs, buses, cars, and boats. Their flexible nature makes them easily adjust to the curve of the roofs. They’re also lightweight and easy to install and thus, have many advantages over the traditional crystalline solar panels. Here are some of the advantages of flexible solar panels:
- The commercially produced flexible solar panels are 80% lighter as compared to the glass based solar panels. Thus, they can be used for several applications and can be taken anywhere.
- The thin nature of these panels requires them to be glues to the roof, and thus, does not require the usage of any mounting racks. The installation of the flexible solar panels is, therefore, more cost effective as compared to the traditional one.
- The flexible solar panels are very thin, with the height of about 1/8th of an inch. This makes them easy to fold or roll up, and therefore, they can be carried anywhere. You can thus, take them off the roof of your RV and install it on your boat with ease. Because of their flexibility, the solar panels are also aerodynamic and can easily adjust to the curve of the roof of your vehicle.
- The efficiency of many flexible solar panels (especially CdTe ones) is higher as compared to that of the crystalline solar cells. The difference in the efficiency can easily range from 2% to 3% between the two types of panels.
- The flexible solar panels are also designed to be extremely durable, and thus, can be walked upon as well. The biggest benefit of using a flexible solar panel is that they recover their cost in about 10 to 20 years of their installation itself, and thus, are more cost effective as compared to the traditional solar panels.
Disadvantages of using flexible solar panels
Apart from the major benefits given by the flexible solar panels, the product does have a few cons. The major disadvantages of flexible solar panels are:
Since the panels are used on the top of buses, RVs, etc. they can be exposed to all kinds of weather. Therefore, the panels may accumulate dirt, dust, or water on top of them and need to be cleaned regularly to make sure they’re working fine. The extreme temperatures can also make the panels slightly bent, and therefore, they must be checked upon regularly. The protective coating of the solar panel may also get damaged if cleaned roughly or not taken care of.
If one has a flat roof over their cars, and buses, it isn’t easy to tilt the flexible solar panels for collecting the maximum sunlight. Thus, the placement of the solar panels must always be well planned before installation.
The glass-based solar panels come with a warranty of over 25 years, which is nowhere close to the one offered for the flexible solar panels. The flexible and fragile nature of the panels allows its manufacturers to give a warranty of only 10 years with the product.
What are the applications of flexible solar power systems?
The flexible solar panel systems are the most portable source of energy and thus can be used and carried anywhere. The panels, are not efficient enough to be used in homes yet but can be fully functional for RVs, buses, or even boats. The panels are powerful enough to charge devices like laptops, digital cameras, and mobile phones. They can also be used for GPS systems, and field communication radios. The flexible solar panel systems have also seen its uses integration with various power camping equipment.
When used for electric cars, the flexible solar panel systems cells fit really well into the curved roofs and can charge the vehicle for about 4-5 miles, depending on how much time the vehicle spends in the sun. Many organizations are researching upon the types of vehicles that can run only on the power of the sun.
The latest research that is intended to make the solar panels printable altogether will offer an even wider variety of applications. These solar panels can then be stuck on to almost anything in our homes or outside, thus, taking in the maximum amount of sunlight from all directions. This can change the way energy is perceived across globe and can make the electricity more cost effective in the future.
Do you Need one?
If you own a business, it’s your ideal choice. It’s a long term investment that you are looking at, and can help you tackle all your energy needs. For instance, if you have a restaurant business, you wouldn’t have to depend on the regular power supply to pull you through all the time. If you own an electric car, it’s a great option too – and you wouldn’t have to depend on the charging points in the middle of nowhere. Instead, with your flexible solar panel, you could charge your car just about anywhere – it just doesn’t get easier than this.
The best part? You’re using up solar energy, so you don’t really have to worry about your carbon footprint any more.