Imagine a future in which each building – domestic, commercial or institutional – can generate its own power. Maybe even the humble bus stop could light up its advertising hoardings and give travellers a more comfortable waiting experience. Who knows – they could even offer charging ports for various devices too.

This isn’t some sci-fi idyll, though, it could be with us within just a few short years! Just think – every roof covered in ultra-thin, printed – yes, printed – solar panels, all generating away. These panels could be less than a millimetre thick.

Who’s behind it?

Researchers at the University of Newcastle have created Australia’s first printed solar cell site – one of only four in the world – and they’ll be joining this exclusive club to work towards make printed PV a reality.

Printing PV cells is surprisingly cheap – it can cost as little as $10 per square metre and the low weight and diminutive size of the panels mean they’re also very cheap to transport in bulk, bringing costs down further.

They can also be made quickly – if 10 printers are working 24 hours a day, they can produce enough panels to power 1,000 homes for that day. It’s not hard to imagine this operation scaled-up and more widespread, and the fact that they can still generate electricity in low-light conditions makes them even more attractive.

The University of Newcastle has been working for five years on the technology to print solar panels on a commercial scale and the first pre-commercial prototypes are here and working, producing hundreds of metres of panel every day!

Not just domestic

One of the great things about this technology is that it’s not just able to reduce householders’ electricity bills. The lightweight nature of these printed cells means they can be sent to war or disaster zones to provide light, aiding relief work.