Vitex, Pacific Northwest National Lab Create Impervious ‘Sandwich Bag’ To Take Solar Power Mainstream

If solar panels are ever going to generate electricity for the mass market of U.S. consumers, they will need to be embedded in a place that captures serious rays, like the roof of the average American home. Lots of scientists are trying to make solar panels thinner, lighter, flexible, and more efficient, so they can be embedded in shingles. But if this is really going to work, they’ll also need serious protection from the elements.

I got an overview of how these two technologies are coming together last week during a tour at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland,WA. Two scientists there at the lab, Mark Gross and Gordon Graff, walked me through their research to create polymer films that are lean and mean enough to protect thin solar panels from the pounding of wind, rain, hail, and the occasional heavy footsteps that a roof must endure for 25 years.

This “barrier film” technology—think sandwich wrap on steroids—was spun out of the national lab a decade ago with a seed investment by Battelle, which operates the lab, and a $15 million investment from Japan-based Mitsubishi, to form a company in San Jose, CA called Vitex Systems. The first business plan could have gone in any number of directions. It identified 15 different applications for polymer material that was micron-thin, rugged, and far more impervious to oxygen and moisture than plastic. The company decided to focus on using barrier film as a coating for the next wave in lighter, thinner, more efficient flat-panel screens on TVs, laptops, and handhelds like the iPhone or BlackBerry.

But that market—for organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays—has never really emerged because prices kept falling for the standard LCD displays, even though they are thicker and heavier, Graff says. So now Vitex and its collaborators at the national lab are investigating a new market for the barrier film—as an enabler for thin solar power panels.

“We make the sandwich bag that goes around the flat panel,” Graff says. “We make what keeps it from going to pot.”

Sounds simple, but this has required a 20-year effort … Next Page »

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