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Startup: Plextronics, Organic Solar Cells

Last I heard, Plextronics, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based organic semiconductor startup, was knee-deep in developing energy-efficient organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) for the flexible display market. When I spoke to CEO Andrew Hannah earlier this year in an interview for Red Herring, he said that Plextronics’ first sales would be for these displays. Next up, he said, was the solar market. So we weren’t too surprised yesterday when we saw Plextronics touting a “world record” for their organic solar cell efficiency.

Organic semiconductors, made out of plastic-like polymers, are attractive to the solar and electronics industry because they’re cheap compared with their inorganic, silicon and metal counterparts. But they’re not the most efficient electricity conductors.

Solar efficiency is quantified by what percent of light can be converted into electricity. Plextronics says their solar cells can reach 5.4 percent efficiency. Their world record for “single layer” organic solar cell efficiency is now certified on the books of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.

In comparison, traditional inorganic crystalline solar technology can reach efficiencies of almost 20 percent. (Mitsubishi claims to have the world record there), while others have claimed efficiency levels of as much as 40 percent. Inorganic thin-film solar (which we wrote about yesterday), with 6 to 10 percent efficiency levels, is more of a direct competitor to the organic photovoltaic technology in both cost and application. That’s because thin-film technologies use little or no silicon, the pricey component in the more efficient, traditional version of photovoltaic cells.

Plextronics, whose beginnings trace back to the labs of Carnegie Mellon, is developing this organic technology for a variety of industries including solar, RFID (radio frequency identification), and electronic displays. Plextronics is backed by $16.4 in funding since it was founded in 2002. Investors include Birchmere Ventures, Draper Triangle Ventures, and Firelake Capital.

I got in touch with Plextronics’ VP of business development, Jim Dietz, this morning to learn more about the company’s latest advances in solar technology. He told me that Plextronics is hoping to pursue “off grid” applications for its solar cells. So while traditional solar technologies might provide power for the electric grid, Plextronics’ less efficient solar cells have other planned applications including portable electronics devices power backup.

One neat feature of organic semiconductors is that they can be used in flexible solar cells. Since the cheap chips are printed on plastic substrates with an low-cost inkjet printing process, unlike traditional solar technology made on unbendable glass. Some inorganic thin-film solar technologies can bend, but are pricey. The organic solar cells could be used in clothing fabric for backup power on the go. So basically one day your shirt could power your cell phone or your iPod. And since the solar technology is cheap — according to Dietz the company’s is roughly five times cheaper than traditional silicon-based solar — it could provide power to developing markets as well.

  • Startup: Plextronics
  • Sector: Organic Semiconductors (OLEDs, Solar, RFID)
  • Based: Pittsburg, PA
  • CEO: Andrew Hannah
  • Funding: $16.4 million
  • Investors: Birchmere Ventures, Draper Triangle Ventures, Firelake Capital
  • Employees: 45

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