Skip to main content
Move the World.

Organic solar cell sounds like a euphemism for "plant". But it actually means a solar cell made using carbon, rather than silicon or other materials. That offers several great advantages over current photovoltaics. Where traditional solar panels are thick, rigid, and expensive, organics are thin, flexible, and cheap. They can be made into long rolls that are faster to manufacture. Unfortunately, the low cost has come at the expense of efficiency: they're bad at converting sunlight into electricity.

But researchers at the University of Michigan have found a way to capture over a third more solar energy using organics, pulling them within reach of more expensive panels on the market now. This may herald a new wave of cheaper and less intrusive solar power.

Efficiency vs. Economics: The most efficient technology isn’t always the most cost effective. Some experimental solar systems can convert nearly 50% of available sunlight into electricity, but they’re crazy expensive and hard to manufacture. Right now, most photovoltaics on the market average 15-17% efficiency, with high-end systems hovering around 20%. For years, organic solar has lagged well behind, stuck around 10-11%—meaning you might need twice as much space to get the same amount of electricity. Even if it was cheap, you might like having a yard covered in grass, rather than solar panels, no matter how thin and flexible they are.

The Breakthrough: Researchers at Michigan have discovered a way to dramatically boost the efficiency of organics. Their new process stacks organic cells in thin, interconnected layers, allowing them to reach 15% efficiency—right in the range of what’s commercially available now, at significantly lower cost. Using their materials and design, the researchers estimate these organic solar cells could produce electricity at less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, over their lifetime. That’s less than half the cost of current residential solar electricity, and neck and neck with utility-scale solar power plants. And they’re pretty confident they can get the current design up to 18% efficiency in the near future, without increasing the cost.

Competitor, Not Gamechanger: The most important fact about solar power is that it’s out of our control: we can’t just turn on the sun (or turn it up) when we want more, and storing electricity in batteries is really expensive and inefficient, so we still need nuclear or fossil fuels to smooth out the supply and pick up the slack on cloudy days. But solar is getting so cheap that it could make up for that: the cost of large-scale solar power has come down 30% in the last year, and residential is down 6%, before subsidies. If storage systems like Tesla’s Powerwall (or even your water heater!) can meet innovations like organic solar halfway, reliable power straight from the sun looks more achievable than ever.

Up Next

Clean Energy
Mini Nuclear Reactors Take Big Step Forward in the U.S.
Small Modular Reactors
Clean Energy
Mini Nuclear Reactors Take Big Step Forward in the U.S.
NuScale Power’s small modular reactors generate less energy than full-sized nuclear reactors, but they might also be cheaper and safer.

NuScale Power’s small modular reactors generate less energy than full-sized nuclear reactors, but they might also be cheaper and safer.

Virtual Reality
Building Trees in the Metaverse Might Actually Save the Forest
3d models of trees
Virtual Reality
Building Trees in the Metaverse Might Actually Save the Forest
NatureXR, a new collective, is the first to build 3D model trees, then have scientists certify them as "real” for virtual reality.

NatureXR, a new collective, is the first to build 3D model trees, then have scientists certify them as "real” for virtual reality.

Oceans
This Underwater Base Could Become the ISS of the Ocean
Underwater Base
Oceans
This Underwater Base Could Become the ISS of the Ocean
Aquanaut Fabien Cousteau has announced plans to build Proteus, the world’s biggest underwater base for scientific research.

Aquanaut Fabien Cousteau has announced plans to build Proteus, the world’s biggest underwater base for scientific research.

Future of Medicine
Bioengineered Blood Soaks Up Toxins Inside the Body
Bioengineered red blood cell
Future of Medicine
Bioengineered Blood Soaks Up Toxins Inside the Body
Tiny sponges that look and act like red blood cells remove toxins from the body.

Tiny sponges that look and act like red blood cells remove toxins from the body.

Women Leaders
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.
Women Leaders
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.
Margaret Rossiter has made it her lifework to spotlight female scientists who were written out of history books through systematic censorship. Read our Q&A with this groundbreaking historian.

Margaret Rossiter has made it her lifework to spotlight female scientists who were written out of history books through systematic censorship. Read our Q&A with this groundbreaking historian.

ELIYSIUM
Can Science Make People Live Healthier for Longer?
Can Science Make People Live Healthier for Longer?
Watch Now
ELIYSIUM
Can Science Make People Live Healthier for Longer?
An MIT researcher has turned 30 years of aging research into something you can use right now.
Watch Now

Most of medical science focuses on combating disease and managing the impact of aging. But one MIT researcher wants to tackle aging head on. Through decades of research, Dr. Leonard Guarente has uncovered a basic mechanism to regulate aging and co-founded Elysium to turn his research into a product. Elysium’s mission is to help people live healthier for longer. Freethink is proud to present this story in partnership with...

Coded
Hacker Hero Arrested by FBI
Hacker Hero Arrested by FBI
Watch Now
Coded
Hacker Hero Arrested by FBI
Was MalwareTech just doing research to stop criminal activity or engaging in criminal activity himself?
Watch Now

Why This Hacker Was Arrested The super-secretive hacker known as MalwareTech became famous when he dismantled the WannaCry computer virus, one of the most alarming privacy threats in recent memory. But the praise was cut short when the hacker was arrested by the FBI for creating a virus that gave digital thieves access to people’s banking credentials. Was he just doing research to stop criminal activity or engaging in...

Superhuman
Meet the Wounded Veteran Using Bionics to Take Back His Independence
Jerral Hancock Wounded Veteran with Bionics
Superhuman
Meet the Wounded Veteran Using Bionics to Take Back His Independence
Jerral lost his left arm in Iraq. Now he's working with a team from Johns Hopkins to test a prosthetic arm that...
By Mike Riggs

Jerral lost his left arm in Iraq. Now he's working with a team from Johns Hopkins to test a prosthetic arm that works by reading signals in his skin.