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Nanoelectronics March 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Nanoelectronic Building-Integrated Photovoltaics

Why is this topic significant?

Energy generation in remote locations can often prove challenging. A recent development by Heliatek could enable fully self-sustaining temporary structures.

Description

In January 2015, the German organic-photovoltaics (OPV) firm Heliatek announced the successful installation of one of its products on a temporary structure—or "air dome"—that can find use for entertainment events or temporary accommodation in humanitarian crises. Heliatek carried out the project in conjunction with Paranet Germany—a supplier of air domes that can cover an area of up to 20 000 meters squared. Heliatek installed 12 "HeliaFilm" OPV panels, each measuring 4 square meters, on the surface of an air dome. These solar panels resulted in a total peak power output of 1400 watts—enough to cover 5% of the total energy demand of the air dome. Organic-solar-cell solutions are ideal for such applications as a result of their lightweight and flexible nature. In contrast, other photovoltaic technologies, although more efficient, could prove too heavy or too inflexible for use in temporary structures such as air domes.

Heliatek plans eventually to supply the complete energy demand of an air dome by increasing the total surface coverage of HeliaFilm and by integrating suitable energy-storage technology and control systems. Heliatek states that, to be completely self-sufficient, "an air dome might need only a quarter of the totally available surface area covered with HeliaFilm." Paranet plans to launch air domes powered by Heliatek's organic-photovoltaic technology in 2016.

Implications

This development will have immediate implications for both Heliatek and Paranet. Heliatek, already the world-record holder for OPV efficiency, will be able to add new products to its range of offerings. Heliatek previously commercialized only glass- and concrete-based OPV for building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) applications. However, this collaboration with Paranet extends Heliatek's established strategy of developing further-integrated products with a range of commercial partners. Paranet will also have a standout product within the market for air domes or similar temporary structures. Further increases in the efficiency of OPV, coupled with improvements in cost, would have a marked impact on the commercialization of such applications.

Impacts/Disruptions

The achievement of fully self-sustaining structures that require no external power supply would have a major impact across a number of applications—not least the provision of humanitarian aid in disaster zones. Similar technology to that developed by Heliatek could also find use in a number of other products and applications. For example, OPV clothing has the potential to power wearable electronic devices; integration with tents could also power a range of camping equipment. The lightweight nature of the materials could also result in this technology's finding use in the automotive or aerospace industries. One means of achieving full power generation could eventually be through integration with other energy-harvesting technologies such as thermoelectrics and piezoelectrics. Heliatek's chief competitors in the field of BIPV include Dyesol, Oxford Photovoltaics, and G24i Power. However, Heliatek currently appears to have an advantage in flexible applications.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Construction, photovoltaics, automotive, defense, apparel, aerospace, humanitarian

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Flexible-Electronics Developments

Why is this topic significant?

Flexible-electronics devices are on the verge of making a major commercial breakthrough. However, significant barriers to the commercialization of this technology revolve around specific challenges associated with processing and fabrication. Recent advances could go some way to providing a solution to some of these challenges.

Description

In January 2015, researchers at Kyung Hee University in South Korea released the results of their research into flexible-transparent electronics. The team claims that its devices, which are also lightweight and durable, are the most transparent flexible-electronics devices ever produced. The researchers use a combination of carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide to overcome a major fabrication challenge. When manufacturers employ vacuum deposition or photolithography techniques in the production of flexible-electronics devices, the attachment of the flexible substrate to a rigid carrier substrate is necessary to avoid warping or shrinkage. Separation of the two can then prove difficult or prohibitively expensive. By depositing a 1-nanometer-thick layer of carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide between the flexible and rigid substrates, the researchers found that they were able to separate the two substrates with the minimum of mechanical force. The nanomaterial layer remains attached to the plastic substrate after separation—providing additional mechanical support and mitigating any potential damage that results from electrostatic discharge. The device exhibits an overall transmittance of 70% and a bending radius of 2 millimeters.

Implications

This development employs nanomaterials as part of the fabrication process rather than exploiting their properties to improve on or impart functionality on nanoelectronics systems—a more ambitious, and potentially more commercially lucrative, goal. Nevertheless, the use of carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide for this purpose does address a significant processing challenge and could contribute to the more widespread commercialization of flexible electronics as fabrication costs fall.

The rewards that await the first companies to release successful flexible products are likely to be substantial. As a result, developments in flexible electronics are of interest to all major electronics manufacturers, as well as a host of small to medium-size enterprises that are focusing uniquely on commercialization within this specific field.

Impacts/Disruptions

The commercialization of flexible electronics is likely to create a wide range of next-generation consumer-electronics products—from bendable and rollable displays to wearable devices. The potential for the introduction of innovative commercial products is a key driving force for development in this field. The first products will result from the integration of emerging flexible materials with more established electronics technologies. Entirely novel flexible technologies are likely to follow in a second wave of commercialization. Product durability, alongside material limitations and processing challenges, is one of the principal barriers to the commercialization of flexible electronics. However, recent developments, such as the one this Viewpoints discusses, will go some way toward overcoming these obstacles.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Consumer electronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: