Light power: A flexible, lightweight solar panel from Heliatek.
A startup in Germany has developed a new kind of solar panel made of small, organic molecules deposited on polyester films. The technology is similar to what’s used for OLED displays for phones and flat-screen TVs. The panels are flexible, and far lighter than conventional solar panels, yet in some locations—particularly where it’s hot or cloudy—they can generate just as much electricity as a conventional solar panel.
Heliatek, based in Dresden, is funded by Bosch, BASF, and others, and has raised 28 million euros so far. The company, which recently started making its panels on a small, proof-of-concept production line, hopes to raise an additional 60 million euros, part of which will be used to build a 75-megawatt factory. This is fairly small for a solar panel factory—at such a small scale, Heliatek’s panels will cost more per watt than conventional solar panels, says CEO Thibaud de Séguillon. But in four to five years, by which time Heliatek should reach large-scale production, the cost could drop to around 40 to 50 cents per watt, which would make them competitive with conventional solar panels, he says.
Meanwhile, Heliatek will need to find a way to sell its solar panels at a premium to fund its expansion. It plans to do this by selling products that take advantage of its solar panels’ unusual light weight and flexibility. In one case, it’s working with a building materials company to integrate its solar panels into forms for concrete facades. At a construction site, forms will be filled with concrete, and the panels will become a part of the façade.
Heliatek is also working with another manufacturer to incorporate its solar panels, which can be semitransparent, into windows. “It’s like tinted windows, only these windows generate electricity,” Séguillon says.
Builders might be willing to pay a premium for the solar panels because they’re cheaper to integrate into a building; they wouldn’t have to buy hardware to anchor the panels to a roof, for example. Policies in Europe that will soon require buildings to produce as much electricity as they consume could also drive builders to integrate solar panels into windows and facades, says Séguillon.
Heliatek’s key innovations are the active materials in its solar cells and the process for making the cells. Organic solar cells have been around for decades. The idea behind them is that certain organic molecules—typically types of long polymers—could be cheaply printed, leading to very-low-cost solar cells. But such cells have proven inefficient and have had relatively short lifetimes, so they are used only in niche applications.