Can Solar Ink Help The EU’s Green Ambitions?

I have written a number of columns about Ink World You can also find out more about the following: Coatings WorldThe EU’s ambitions to be green are always in the spotlight. What if the EU could achieve its long-term goals by utilizing solar power to a greater extent?

Solar inks are not new, but recent advances have made it possible to achieve more with printable solar cells. This article focuses on the latest developments in this field and what is possible.

Solar Ink

Solar ink, a form conductive ink, is capable of printing solar cells on a variety of substrates including plastic, paper and fabric. Solar ink’s greater flexibility offers obvious advantages to consumers and builders.

The technology is based on the production of thin and flexible solar cells. This overcomes some of the limitations of the fixed solar cell panel, which are eco-friendly but energy-intensive and fragile.

The industry is also in the position that, to meet the demands of the 21st century for traditional solar cells, the materials required for their production will be exhausted by mid-century.

Recent developments in Europe have led to the development of solar cell that is both printable and rollable. In laboratories, they have been manufactured under special conditions in which oxygen and water are removed. The result is a cell that has an operating efficiency equal to that of a conventional solar panel.

This would be very expensive to manufacture in the industry, but printing them on plastic film solves this problem. Researchers at the University of Swansea pioneered the use of a carbon-based ink with the slot-die process to print perovskite cells on plastic film.

One of the requirements for this been the development of perovskite and semiconductor layers that have thicknesses of 50 – 500 nm within the cell. Years of research has also led to a process which eliminates the need for highly toxic solvents in solar cell production.

Solar cells generate free electrons when light strikes them. The semiconductor layer is crucial in achieving an efficient power conversion. It prevents electron absorption. Carbon ink is used to extract the charge.

The slot-die process produces flexible solar cells that can be rolled up. It is therefore possible to print large areas of solar panels.  But there is still much work to be done, for example, increasing the performance of the perovskite and finding new ways to increase their durability, whether through protective coating techniques or lamination.

The production of solar ink in general has already proven to be an eco-friendly option, as it can be produced at low temperatures and therefore reduce energy consumption. The technique is also valuable because the demand for renewable solutions will continue to increase, which will translate into more opportunities for the green economy and for industry.

Recent Statistics on European Sales

In a slight rewind, the European Printing Ink Association published recently its annual statistics on the continent’s ink printing sector for 2022. Overall, the trends are that volume continues to decrease while value of sold printing inks is continuing to increase. Statistics are based on the 26 member companies, which account for 90% of total sales. 

Publication inks are comprised of web offset (coldset, heatset) and sheetfed offset printing inks. They also include publication gravure and overprinting varnishes. Packaging inks are flexographic inks. Specialty gravure inks. Radcure inks.

In 2022, sales of publication inks fell by 15% to 250,000 tonnes. Packaging ink volumes were also down by 4%, or 530,000 tonnes. When we look at the national details, we can see some important points and indicators:

• Of the big five economies in the west, Italy boasted the strongest annual growth in ink sales at 13.6%, increasing the value of inks to its economy to more than €400 million. Spain placed second with ink sales rising by 10.7% in 2022 to total more than €200 million. The UK and France increased sales by 8.5% and 6.9% respectively to both reach about €260 million. Germany remains the pre-eminent industry and market with sales in excess of €575 million and growing by 7.4%. Italy is the second most valuable market for ink after Germany.

• From the mid-sized and smaller economies, some of the best performers were the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden, Croatia and Portugal, although none of these have ink sales in excess of €100 million and most have sales fewer than €50 million.

• In Eastern Europe disruption for some brought opportunity for others. Ukrainian ink sales fell by nearly 44% to around €13-14 million while those in neighbouring Belarus rose by 115% to about €12 million. Russian ink sales were seen to fare badly last year, collapsing by 35% to around €110 million. Meanwhile in the regionally prominent Turkish economy, turnover from inks grew by more than 24% to over €275 million. The Turkish ink industry is now Europe’s third-most valuable after Germany and Italy.