The school scientists making solar shine

August 15 2019

Peter Pentland

Peter Pentland

Executive Manager of the Academy's Schools Program, STELR

Students in the Academy’s schools program are testing revolutionary printed solar cells and helping build their own renewable future.

It sounds like science fiction: printed solar cells you can stick on your blinds or your backpack. But the CSIRO is developing the materials and processes to print flexible solar panels at very low cost – and STELR students are helping them do it.

Solar energy is a huge source of clean, sustainable power. Even a fraction of the sun’s energy could power the world.

As the climate crisis escalates, we need a range of low-cost solar technologies to meet the growing energy needs of the developed and developing worlds.

Made with printable “solar inks”, the flexible solar cells are lightweight, thin, and semitransparent. Designed for situations where conventional panels won’t suit, they can be integrated into tents, windows, bags, blinds, packaging, roofing, boat sails and a multitude of other products.

But while lab results are promising, research is still being done on how robust the panels are when they’re used in the real world. Who better to test that than kids?

Here comes the sun

STELR (Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance) is collaborating with CSIRO and Stanford University in a world-first study on the durability of the printed flexible solar panels in non-laboratory environments.

The project, titled “A case study of degradation of flexible photovoltaic modules”, is funded by the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) and the CSIRO.

flexible solar panels

Image and banner image via CSIRO

The study brings the science and education communities together to advance this exciting renewable energy technology. It also aims to build public awareness of next-generation solar tech – especially among the next generation.

At the end of the project, the researchers will be able to:

  1. understand the cohesion behaviour of the panels’ device layer
  2. identify the best performing electroactive inks
  3. verify the integrity of the electrical connection
  4. compare the performance of encapsulation material in end-user environment settings.

From the lab to the classroom

STELR sees this as a great opportunity for our students to be an essential part of an international scientific study into a cutting-edge renewable energy technology with massive implications for the future.

The project is an example of how STEM should be taught. It’s an authentic, interdisciplinary project about complex real-world problems.

The investigations are hands-on and inquiry-based. The students are able to work independently and collaboratively in teams. They’re stimulated to ask questions about the technology then devise and carry out their own investigations to find solutions.

The investigations require the students to apply mathematics, engineering and technology principles, and to gather and analyse data.

More than 10,000 students will have access to the practical and engaging program.

Kitted out

The study has produced 500 organic photovoltaic (OPV) modules. These have gone to more than 100 national and international schools or education centres involved in the STELR program.

There are also nine centres of excellence or outreach centres that provide programs for school visits.

Each school received:

  • four flexible solar panels (10cm x 10cm)
  • one load box to measure the energy output of the panels
  • curriculum materials which suggested activities that use the solar panels
  • a safety sheet for the OPV modules.
STELR Kids with panels

Students from Thalgarrah Environment Education Centre in NSW with the flexible solar cells.

The kits are used to collect data from the panels. This allows students to draw characteristic curves for the different types of flexible panel provided. They can also compare the effectiveness of the flexible panels with silicon-based solar cells.

The panels can be used in standalone activities or in conjunction with four other STELR modules:

  • renewable energy
  • sustainable housing
  • electricity and energy
  • solar cars.

A bright future

At the end of 2019, the schools will return the panels and researchers will assess their condition to see if and how they’ve degraded. In exchange, the schools will receive four new panels and can keep the data-gathering equipment.

The data collected about the panels will include:

  • the number of times (days, sessions) used
  • the amount of time used
  • temperature
  • voltage
  • time indoors and outdoors
  • light conditions (direct sunlight, shade, indoors, etc)
  • storage conditions.

This program will improve the design of flexible solar products, boosting Australian industry and helping build a carbon-free world.

It proves to young people that they can make a very real difference – and might just inspire some future scientists along the way.

Find out more about our flexible solar work, including a video about the technology.