A new plastic film from 3M could revolutionize the way solar panels are built and seriously affect their cost-effectiveness and market share. The company says it can replace the classic glass and is more protective to solar cells than glass is, making the solar power investment worthwhile.
3M’s film is a multilayer, fluoropolymer-based sheet, that can be laminated directly onto the solar panel, protecting it from moisture and other atmospheric contaminants which may reduce its lifespan.
The plastic film appeared as a request from solar panel makers, especially thin film. There will be no need to install special supporting racks for the future solar panels that will feature the new film. “Flexible solar panels have all these great-sounding benefits, but then you come to the question of how you encapsulate them. For many years people didn’t appreciate this problem,” says Steven Hegedus, a scientist at the Institute of Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware.
CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenium) solar cells could benefit the most out of 3M’s plastic sheet, since they make up the most efficient thin film solar cells. Currently, if over-exposed to moisture they are prone to premature aging and death.
For a comparison, just to exemplify how thin 3M’s film is, we have to say the typical glass installed on regular solar panels is 3 millimeters thick (3,000 micrometers) and the fluoropolymer film is only 23 micrometers. The material is resistant to ultraviolet light, high temperatures and water, and has been designed to minimize reflections, to enhance the cells’ efficiency. While other films can let through hundreds of times more moisture, 3M’s only let 0.0005 grams of water per day.
Turning to a new and more effective solution doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more expensive. On the contrary, solar panel manufacturing costs could be cut because the film can be laminated onto the cells using the same technological lines. For the user, installing the new solar panels isn’t more of a hurdle than classic ones, because they don’t need supporting racks and costly transport.