OPV Continues to Face Major Challenges08 Nov 2011 • by Natalie Aster
The organic photovoltaics (OPV) business faces major challenges going forward, indeed, it is fair to say that its entire survival is in question. In researching the report “Materials, Applications and Opportunities within Organic Photovoltaics - 2011” NanoMarkets has come across the view that OPV is essentially doomed to—at best—become a cottage industry providing niche solar products for campers, the military and so on. Such an industry, it is claimed, would never put out more than a few MW of solar products; that is in a PV industry that in total will soon produce panels with aggregate performance measured in the tens of Gigawatts. But we are struck by the fact that this view runs counter to what we continue to see in the industry, which is more investment, new companies and new products.
Not that anyone ever thought that OPV could steal a giant's share of the PV market. But for most of the past decade or so, OPV advocates could reasonably make the claim that their favorite technology would be able to carve out a profitable niche for itself and that some fairly large-sized players thought the same. Certainly, this was the kind of thinking that brought venture capital into the OPV space in the past decade. It is safe to say that the nearly $200 million in investment that has gone into Konarka—the iconic firm in the OPV space which owns much of the relevant IP—was made with the idea that this firm could be a lot more than just a mom and pop firm.
Unfortunately, the value propositions that have been claimed for OPV in the past seem to be harder and harder to make:
OPV was supposed to be real inexpensive, but the materials from which it was made have remained persistently high-cost.
- While it was always understood that OPV would be tricky to encapsulate if its flexibility was to be preserved this has proved a high-cost exercise as well.
- And functional printing, which was supposed to lead to low-cost electronics and PV of all kinds has proved to be a useful tool, rather than the harbinger of a manufacturing revolution.
We should also mention that on the applications side of things, claims of the past that laptop and cell phone users would quickly adopt solar chargers now look a little naive.
Given all of the above, it is easy to see why the OPV star now does not look as bright as it once did.
Materials, Applications and Opportunities within Organic Photovoltaics - 2011
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DSC: New Threat to OPV?
NanoMarkets also senses that OPV is beginning to face yet another challenge; this is the challenge from dye sensitized cells (DSC). This is not a challenge that is pointed out very often as yet, but we believe it will be in the future. However, NanoMarkets has recently completed a study of DSC markets—a companion volume to this one—and we have come to believe that DSC has the capability to deliver most of the same capabilities as OPV, but with higher efficiency levels. Indeed, while both DSC and OPV are at the present marginal PV technologies and neither can claim significant revenues as yet, DSC efficiencies are now beginning to climb up close to what the a-Si PV offers, while OPV efficiencies continue to remain well outside PV industry norms.
Since efficiency is still a primary measure in the PV industry, although others may be more appropriate for both OPV and DSC, we think all this means that DSC has the capability to swallow up some of the markets that OPV had promised itself as part of its growth towards becoming a major industry. It seems likely to us that many firms and investors in the OPV space have yet to come to terms with DSC as a potential competitive technology.
One reason for this is that until very recently, DSC and OPV were considered as closely related technologies. This was partly because of the coincidence that both used (very different) organic materials. But more because they were both low-performance PV technologies that could still bring some competitive advantages to the table in terms of flexibility, transparency and a relatively strong ability to perform in poor light. However, NanoMarkets' recent analysis suggests to us that DSC now seems much further along the way to being adopted for BIPV applications than OPV. And, as we discuss below, BIPV seems to be the only market where either OPV or DSC have any hope of capturing enough business to turn them into industries, not just interesting research programs.
This is not to say that DSC has the capability to push OPV out of the running for BIPV projects altogether. Where transparency is an issue, OPV may have an advantage, because DSC makes use of dark organic dyes. And for a few applications (BIPV and otherwise) OPV may also have a flexibility advantage, because while OPV material is essential a sheet of fully flexible plastic, DSC cells use a liquid electrolyte which limits their flexibility. That said, we note that both of these current "problems" are likely to go away at some point because transparent dyes will replace ruthenium and solid-state electrolytes will replace liquid ones in DSC. However, as we discuss below, there is also a possibility that much higher performance OPV cells may also emerge.
Changes in the Past Year: New Firms, New Materials and New Markets
But for now, significant improvements in OPV are not on the horizon. Despite this, new firms, new capacity and new products have been introduced into the OPV space in the past year. Thus we note that Heliatek's new 1,700-square-meter factory was begun in Dresden in July 2010 with support from the European Union. As of March 2011, Heliatek is outfitting the factory with equipment.
Meanwhile, two new OPV companies have appeared in the past year. One of these companies—Eight19—has initial funding of ?4.5 million, which should keep it going for a while and is a reasonable amount of money for start-ups these days. The other new British company in this space is Solar Press, which, as far as we are aware, has received only seed funding. The company claims to be a fabless manufacturer using conventional print industry methods. It will supposedly eventually "outsource manufacturing" and, at a recent presentation, a representative of the company said that it will "rent time and space at a site, and print cells to sell on to OEMs."
All of this seems to be out of sync with the rather pessimistic assertions about OPV that we discussed earlier in this chapter. And indeed they probably should be seen as somewhat balancing and modifying those propositions. However, they should also be seen in context. The Heliatek plant and both the new firms have received government money, which means their activities cannot be judged entirely against market norms. In addition, we are a little skeptical about the fact that the two new firms seem to base their value propositions on printing, which isn't exactly a new idea and has been found wanting in the past. Its use is certainly not enough to predict instant success.
Less risky strategies are available to firms at the materials level of the OPV supply chain. Materials firms can afford to be quite opportunistic in the OPV space and move on if the OPV market does not work out for them. Thus, in June 2010, Plextronics introduced its Plexcore PV2000 ink set for OPV, with indoor energy harvesting of fluorescent light as its main target. The usual reason why materials firms have developed such specialized materials is to capitalize on expected strong growth in a niche, so we must count this as an affirmation of OPV's future. On the other hand, the beauty of Plextronic's business strategy is that it can shift its product range to suit the latest waxings and wanings within the organic electronics and OPV space. So in offering such a product it is not betting the proverbial farm.
More information can be found in the report “Materials, Applications and Opportunities within Organic Photovoltaics - 2011” by NanoMarkets.
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