We can preach about the environmental benefits of solar energy all we want, but until it costs the same as fossil fuels, we’re not going to see energy companies tearing up oil fields to erect solar farms.

The good news is that the quest for cheaper solar power just took a giant leap forward: Chinese researchers set a new world record in power conversion efficiency for polymer-based organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells. The 9.31 percent efficiency was certified by the Newport Technology & Application Center’s Photovoltaic Lab in Long Beach, Calif.

Unlike traditional, rigid solar cells, organic solar cells are made from flexible polymer. Instead of bulky wires, polymer solar cells use organic electronics, a branch of electronics that deals with conductive organic polymers or small organic molecules. As a result, OPV is lightweight, has a better performance in low light and is easier to manufacture, making it a potentially cost-effective renewable energy technology on par with current conventional energy technologies. Organic solar cells do not require exotic and toxic materials, so the final solar cell is nontoxic, an important factor for end-of-lifetime disposal or recycling.

The new record was achieved as a result of collaboration between Solarmer Energy Inc., South China University of Technology (SCUT), and surprisingly (or not) Philips 66. The super-efficient cell utilized a new polymer jointly developed by Solarmer and Philips 66, combined with the interface technology developed at SCUT’s Polymer Optoelectronic Materials and Devices.

The solar industry’s goal for OPVs now stands at 10 percent efficiency, a target those at Solarmer Energy are confident will be shattered soon. In June, Stion, a U.S. company manufacturing high-efficiency, thin-film solar modules, announced that it had achieved 14.8 percent efficiency with its monolithically integrated CIGS, commercial modules.

Photo credit: South China University of Technology