Printing Solar Panels In The Backyard
Printing Solar Panels In The Backyard
With crowd-sourced funding through Kickstarter, a team of inventors are building a Solar Pocket Factory: a machine designed to print micro solar panels—like the ones used in phone chargers and garden lights. Co-inventor Shawn Frayne stopped by Flora Lichtman's backyard with a few pieces of the prototype to explain how the machine works.
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
Up next, Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.
FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: What's in store for us this week?
LICHTMAN: I pretty much geeked out this week.
FLATOW: You geeked...
LICHTMAN: I mean, that's what the video is - that's the subtext to the video. But it's a new item that I want on my wish list, and you might too. If you were thinking like, oh, a 3-D printer would really be cool to have, this is like the next level up. The video this week is about the Solar Pocket Factory, which is a machine, a little machine that will print micro solar panels.
FLATOW: So you can print these solar panels in the comfort of your own home?
LICHTMAN: Well, in this case, yes, because Shawn Frayne, one of the investors, was kind enough to bring some prototypes of the machine to my backyard and printed a panel for us there. But the idea is that they're these little panels, so it's not like the large-scale versions. They're the ones that you would find to charge your cell phone or for your garden lights.
FLATOW: A few inches long, a few inches wide.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. And small power output, right. But currently, these panels are made, according to Frayne and his co-inventors, largely in factories in China and India and Bangladesh, and they're made by hand. And he says that the cost of labor is going up, but the price of the raw materials, the silicon cells, is going down. And so what you have is these little - these little solar panels are much more expensive per watt than the big ones.
So enter the Solar Pocket Factory. If you could automate this process and just feed a machine the silicon cells, maybe you could bring the price down and maybe you could have these little pocket factories all over. You know, maybe not in your backyard. They analogize it to the microbrewery of factories. So basically, you know, maybe you would have one in your city, not necessarily in your garage.
FLATOW: Right, down the block.
FLATOW: I need some solar panels for, maybe, to recharge my cell phone or something like that?
FLATOW: You could wear it on your clothing?
LICHTMAN: Right. Well, their hope is - I mean, the - I think the sort of grand dream here is that if you make these little pocket factory sort of easy, you know, easy to install in cities, then inventors and companies who might have a need for micro solar but didn't want to go through the rigmarole of acquiring those panels before might incorporate them. So you could have sort of more micro solar use. That's their grand dream, although of course they say, you know, who knows?
FLATOW: Well - but you see, working - so the Video Pick of the Week is the video - it's up on our website at sciencefriday.com, in Flora's backyard. You get a little peek...
LICHTMAN: Yeah. Don't judge me.
FLATOW: It's beautiful. It's nothing to be ashamed of.
LICHTMAN: There's one plant that needs water, I'm sorry.
FLATOW: That little machine, it actually - you can watch it work and twirl and do its little mechanical things and prints out little solar panels.
LICHTMAN: Yeah. So basically, you feed it this little silicon cells. It chops them up into little pieces. And then, I didn't know this, but you just take them and wire them in series. I mean, in fact, if you had them, you could manually make one yourself. The process isn't all that complicated. So we see how you would actually do this. You know, they couldn't bring all of the prototypes because some of them couldn't fit in a suitcase. Literally, they packed them in a suitcase...
FLATOW: And on the subway.
LICHTMAN: ...and took them on the subway to my yard. But it's definitely worth a look. I think the other thing that was interesting to me is that it was funded - it's bankrolled by strangers. This was a Kickstarter project. So they put up a little video on the website Kickstarter and got over 1,000 people to contribute over $70,000 to make this. This is real bootstrap inventing.
FLATOW: So if you're a geek or a Benjie(ph) , as we like to call you...
LICHTMAN: Oh, yeah.
FLATOW: ...and you want to see how to make one of your own, maybe you'll get an idea, maybe you'll make, put this into production or license it, and you can watch how these little pocket solar panels are made...
FLATOW: ...right in your backyard. Thank you, Flora.
LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: Flora Lichtman is our multimedia editor, and that's about the time we have for this hour.
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