A team of engineers in Melbourne, Australia, has developed an inexpensive method of producing solar cells from a standard industrial printer, raising the possibility that solar panels can be eventually mass produced for far less than current costs.

As reported by San Francisco public radio station KCET, engineers at the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) said on May 23 that they are able to use a $200,000 screen printer to make photovoltaic cells the size of an A3 sheet of paper (11.7 by 16.5 inches), using semiconducting inks. Such printers are typically used for applications such as screen-printing t-shirts and posters, can make a solar cell of that size every two seconds.

Currently, drawbacks to printed solar cells include the panels’ extremely low efficiency and short lifespan compared to traditional solar cells. The printed cells range from one to five percent efficiency, far lower than the 20 to 25 percent in most panels. They produce only 10 to 50 watts of energy per square meter, only enough to power a small light bulb. However, the advancement is a significant one if the technology can be improved. Solar cells like this could be added to building surfaces, billboards, and since they can be made translucent, tinted windows.

VICOSC is a collaboration between Australia's national science agency the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), The University of Melbourne, Monash University, and industry partners.