for National Geographic News
The giant machines arranged and stamped flexible solar panels onto plastic film. (Read about solar power.)
The cells were only 3 percent efficient, meaning they could convert only a small amount of solar energy into electricity.
But Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) project leader Gerry Wilson told Australian ABC News he expects the output to more than double by next year and top 10 percent after that.
He said he hoped the solar cells would be ready for mass production in five years.
The main advantage is that the cells can now be produced in vast sheets or rolls, making the cells ideal for windows or large-scale, rooftop applications, Wilson said.
The printers could turn out 62 miles (100 kilometers) of solar sheeting every day, according to CSIRO.
Banking on the Sun
Australia's money is not made of paper but of polypropylene, a type of plastic.
The polymer used in the solar cells is the product of a 7.7-million-U.S.-dollar research consortium that includes energy company BP Solar and construction material company BlueScope Steel.
The involvement of construction companies was critical in creating the technology, said Attilio Pigneri, associate director of the Centre of Energy Research at Massey University in New Zealand, who was not involved in the project.
"The capability to develop ... materials ready for the housing market—where the photovoltaic [solar power] cells are already integrated in the construction material—is going to have significant impacts in bringing down [energy] costs."
He said printing flexible cells solves the biggest problem associated with traditional solar panels: the need for extra structures to support them. "Now the structure is the support."
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