Intel is quietly doing research into how to get organic photovoltaic cells – solar cells made form carbon and other organic materials – past the low efficiencies in converting sunlight to electricity that have so far stymied their commercial development.

Yuri Sylvester, research scientist with Intel Labs in Seattle, was at Research@Intel day in Mountain View, Calif. on Thursday to discuss it. Intel has been working on the organic photovoltaic problem for some time, he said.

He sees the technology as holding promise, since it involves cheaply made materials that can withstand small impurities – no more clean rooms required for production. Organic dyes and inks can also be inexpensively laid on flexible substances like plastic, potentially opening up solar power to a whole new class of uses.

The main problem with the technology is that the dyes or inks that convert sunlight into electricity lose their efficiency when applied at greater than laboratory scales, he said.

For example, Intel has gotten a 6 percent efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity in tiny lab-made cells, he said. But increasing them to practical sizes drops that efficiency down to about 2 percent, he said.

That's a pretty standard efficiency for companies like Konarka, Plextronics, 3G Solar, Dyesol, Heliatek and G24 Innovations that are on a quest to bring organic photovoltaic cells to market.

Konarka is the best-funded of them, with about $145 million raised to date and plans for a Massachusetts factory capable of an annual production of 1 gigawatt of its "power plastic." The company has claimed 6.4-percent efficiency for its cells in lab tests (see Konarka Gets $45M From Total and Does Going Organic Require Exaggeration?).

Intel spinoff SpectraWatt, which is planning to start making multicrystalline silicon solar cells at a New York-based factory next year, is the IT giant's best-known foray into solar power technology (see SpectraWatt Moves HQ and Factory Plan to NY).

The most efficient silicon solar cells can convert 20 percent or more of the sunlight that hits them into electricity.

But Sylvester hopes that laying the organic photovoltaic materials onto a titanium oxide or zinc oxide substrate could help boost its efficiencies to 10 percent or more, which would make them competitive with other commercially available technologies.

Depositing the organic photovoltaic material onto substrates with tiny pores – or "ordered bulk heterojunction," as he put it – could tighten the tiny distances between the junctions, or layers, that contain the substance to distances of 10 to 20 nanometers from the more typical 100 nanometers Intel has achieved so far, improving efficiencies.

Intel has been working with the University of Washington's Institute of Materials Science and Engineering on the project, but it's still very much in the experimental phases, Sylvester said. Problems with the process so far include tiny air bubbles caught in the inks and dyes laid onto those substrates, he said.

If the research can lead to more efficient organic solar cells, Intel would love to put them on mobile devices like cell phones and laptops, he said. 

(Pictured above is an example of Konarka's organic photovoltaic cells.)

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