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Flexible, colorful solar cells coming next year

Konarka Technologies, an organic-photovoltaic cell maker, is partnering to deliver its flexible solar films for buildings, consumer products next year.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Konarka Technologies is a solar company that specializes in organic photovoltaics, solar cells made from plastics.

Those cells are not as efficient or long-lasting as silicon, which is used in most rooftop solar panels. But they are lighter, flexible and can be integrated into a range of products, from consumer electronics to fibers. Konarka has even suggested putting its plastic on soft drink bottles in stores for advertising.

Konarka's organic photovoltaic cells are like films that it hopes will be integrated into a wide range of products. Konarka Technologies

So when will we start to see this new generation of consumer-friendly solar cells?

Konarka is now in commercial prototyping its solar cells and expects to have products that use those films by the second half of next year, said Howard Berke, the company's chairman and co-founder.

Rather than bring end products to market itself, Konarka's strategy is to partner with other "application" companies, he said. Berke spoke here on Monday at the Lux Research conference on nanotechnology.

Last week, the company announced a partnership with Air Products to make windows that generate electricity using Konarka's solar films. Berke said to expect announcements with a blind manufacturer and a battery company in the coming months.

The idea is to allow these partners to integrate solar cells into their products in compelling ways, rather than try to compete with solar panel makers on cost per watt.

"We're not selling high efficiency and not lower prices. It's the patterns, colors, the aesthetic attributes that make a product more valuable than just the power it produces," Berke said.

With organic photovoltaics, the efficiency of converting sunlight to electricity of its cells is about 5 percent (most silicon panels are in the 15 percent to 20 percent range). Berke said that he expects they will ultimately approach silicon's efficiency. Organic photovoltaics work well in a broader spectrum of light than silicon as well.

Konarka already does a lot of work for the military. But after raising $98 million, its biggest payoff--if the technology works as promised--could be in consumer products.