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Backing solar cells with cotton, castor beans

BioSolar aims for its plant-based backsheets for solar photovoltaics to be greener and less costly than those made of traditional plastics.

BioSolar has developed a plant-based plastic for making durable, less expensive, and more sustainable solar equipment, the 2-year-old company said Tuesday.

The company's BioBacksheet is a protective coating for crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells. Its material consists of layers of cotton fiber and a nylon resin from castor beans provided by Arkema, a Philadelphia chemicals company. Genetically modified crops aren't involved, according to BioSolar.

Castor beans and cotton make up the backing of this solar cell.
Castor beans and cotton make up the backing of this solar cell. BioSolar

Unlike many plant-based plastics, which are ideal for throwaway forks and food packaging, BioSolar's material is supposed to withstand extreme temperatures and moisture, keeping solar photovoltaic equipment safe when exposed to the elements. The company, based north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita, aims to develop thin-film solar applications down the road.

Stan Levy, chief technology officer of BioSolar, was set to release details about the use of cotton and castor beans in BioBacksheet on Tuesday morning at the SPIE Symposium on Solar Applications and Energy in San Diego.

"Not only is this product produced from sustainable and renewable resources, but is expected to be more cost effective than the current backsheets," Levy said in a statement.

If he's correct, then BioBacksheet could serve as an alternative to DuPont's Tedlar brand material, which is composed of polyvinyl fluoride.

In July, DuPont Photovoltaic Fluoromaterials said it created one-step production of the polymer, licensing the technology to Tokyo-based Toppan Printing for commercialization within photovoltaic backsheets by 2010.

Small makers of solar cells reportedly have been waiting as long as six months for Tedlar, which is in short supply.

Silicon solar backsheets also use polyesther and ethylene-vinyl acetate. BioSolar's executives hope that rising costs for fossil fuels and concerns about the toxicity of petroleum-based plastics will drive solar equipment makers to consider its product.