Solar prices have dropped precipitously in the past several years, but the panels are still too expensive for many would-be clean energy consumers. Part of the reason for their relatively high cost is the process through which they are made, which requires vacuum conditions and time consuming processes for large-scale production.

A new technique, however, may offer a promising and less expensive alternative for creating solar cells.  Anirudh Sharma, a PhD candidate at Flinders University, has been working on a way to make large-scale plastic – instead of silicon-based – solar cells through the use of lamination.

“In the conventional method of fabricating plastic solar cells you have to deposit various materials sequentially on top of each other in a sandwich structure but over time the materials intermix, leading to device degradation,” Mr. Sharma said. “However my technique involves deposition of materials on two different electrically conductive surfaces, followed by lamination. It gives better control over the material intermixing and thus can give more stable and better performing devices.”

The technique also allows for the materials to be depositing through printing machines, which will make it scalable and cheaper.  According to Mr. Sharma it will also be more sustainable than silicon-based solar cells.

“For the past 50 years, the traditional solar panels which you see on rooftops have been made from silicon but these cells are very expensive to produce because silicon requires excessive amounts of energy to purify,” Sharma explained. “Plastic solar cells, on the other hand, are really light and flexible so they can be used to coat a whole range of different surfaces – they are portable enough to put them on day to day carry bags and even camping tents – and plastic itself is cheap as chips.”

Solar manufacturing in the U.S. has faced plenty of challenges – remember Solyndra? – partly because of unbeatably cheap silicon prices coming from China. A plastics-based design for solar cells may offer a lucrative new way to produce solar panels.

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