Sir Richard Friend on organic solar-cell technology

by Rebecca Priestley / 13 October, 2012
Plastic solar cells are the way of the future, says a visiting Cambridge physics professor.
Sir Richard Friend on organic solar-cell technology


A video screen you can roll up and put in your pocket! “Wallpaper” you can watch a movie on! These sorts of products are often touted as the future of organic light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, but when I asked Sir Richard Friend – who is lecturing to New Zealand audiences this month – if this was what he was working on, he laughed. On the phone from Cambridge, where he is Cavendish Professor of Physics – a role once held by Sir Ernest Rutherford – Friend said that although such products might be available in the future, there are other, more practical, applications of organic LEDs that he is more enthusiastic about. Organic LEDs using technology developed by Friend and his companies are already used in some smartphones, but he’s looking to apply the technology to much larger displays like solar cells and highly efficient lighting panels. The “organic” in organic semiconductors and LEDs simply refers to the use of carbon, which we know as the building-block of life, in place of silicon, which has driven the development of electronic products for decades.

Although solar cells have been available for many years, cost has limited their uptake. That’s because conventional solar cells use silicon to absorb and convert light energy into electricity, and processing silicon into a working solar cell is very expensive. One problem with silicon, says Friend, is that it’s very hard, “and the way you handle it is to literally cut wafers out of large single crystals. What we’re using are carbon-based molecules. We use plastics, or polymers, because they’re relatively easy to process onto thin, flexible films by printing them or painting them.” Friend has spent much of the past 25 years “showing how you can get silicon-like properties in organic semiconductors”. As well as trying to emulate silicon, he has drawn inspiration from biology. The operation of solar cells made with organic semiconductors, he says, is a bit like “what goes on in photosynthesis in green plants”, whereby carbon-based molecules in plants create chemical energy from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. In the solar cell, the sunlight is translated into electrical energy.

One of the challenges in making efficient organic solar cells is making them as thin as possible. “Thinner is very good. If you want to make a thin solar cell, you’d really like to make it as thin as a leaf. Nature doesn’t need to make them any thicker, so why should we? And if you can make them thin, you use less materials so they cost less – and that’s a very straightforward proposition. “I’d like to see solar cells really take off, because the energy challenge we face is so serious. Dropping the cost of solar cells is essential and our plastic solar cells have a very good shot. But we’re not there yet.”

Sir Richard Friend, the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2012 Distinguished Speaker, will lecture in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin from October 10-16 (goo.gl/7S2Pj).

Questions welcome at science@listener.co.nz

Hot tips for science reading


If you’re looking for a good, accessible science book, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Writing celebrates the best in English language popular science writing. This year’s shortlisted books are: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (Allen Lane); My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank (Oneworld); The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate); The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene (Allen Lane); The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane); and The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe (Allen Lane). (royalsociety.org/awards/science-books)
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Nokia and Motorola phones are making a comeback
84440 2017-12-16 00:00:00Z Technology

Nokia and Motorola phones are making a comeback

by Peter Griffin

It's been a long time since Nokia and Motorola ruled, but they're back with new mid-market smart phones.

Read more
Spreading like a rash: The rise of anti-vax groups on Facebook
85079 2017-12-16 00:00:00Z Health

Spreading like a rash: The rise of anti-vax groups…

by Mava Enoka

Inside a Facebook group where anti-vax propaganda is promoted as info for "informed consent".

Read more
The 20 Best Movies of 2017
85197 2017-12-15 11:49:48Z Movies

The 20 Best Movies of 2017

by The Listener

Listener reviewers James Robins and Peter Calder pick the best films they’ve seen in the past year.

Read more
Win a double pass to The Post
85156 2017-12-15 09:53:04Z Win

Win a double pass to The Post

by The Listener

Be in to win tickets to a preview screening of The Post in either Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington.

Read more
Why did TVNZ's Mike Hosking and Toni Street call it quits?
85153 2017-12-15 07:18:32Z Television

Why did TVNZ's Mike Hosking and Toni Street call i…

by Colin Peacock

TVNZ insists the pair want to spend more time with families and radio jobs. What's next for a show that's often in the news because of its hosts?

Read more
National claims government accounts show big hole
85149 2017-12-15 06:32:15Z Politics

National claims government accounts show big hole

by Chris Bramwell

National says the opening of the government books yesterday backs up its argument that Labour has a massive hole in its accounts.

Read more
Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Trump
84715 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z World

Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Tru…

by Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas has chronicled the Trump presidency since its beginning and reviews the extraordinary year since The Donald entered the White House.

Read more
Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direction
84445 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Music

Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direc…

by James Belfield

But it’s no less entertaining.

Read more