These powerful solar panels are as thin as a human hair
Six years ago, an MIT engineering group at the university’s Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Laboratory ONE Lab developed a thin solar cell that could rest atop a soap Bubble . Despite being impressive, large-scale production was impossible due to the high manufacturing costs and prohibitive manufacturing requirements. This week, however, ONE Lab revealed a new, similarly ultra-thin solar cell material that is one-hundredth the weight of conventional panels, while also potentially generating 18 times more power-per-kilogram compared to traditional solar technology. Its production methods are promising for scaling and major manufacturing.
A press release from MIT explains that fragile solar cells require thick glass or aluminum encasements to protect them. This limits their flexibility and implementation possibilities. Using semiconducting inks printed onto material thinner than a single strand of human hair, the team was able to subsequently glue the panels onto a layer of Dyneema, a protective, ultra-lightweight composite fabric weighing only 13 grams-per-square meter. The micron-thin sheet can then be laminated on top of a variety surfaces and materials, such as tent exteriors for power generation during disaster relief efforts or drone wings to extend their flight time.
Despite its small size, the new material has a lot of storage capacity. Mayuran Saravanapavanantham (one of the paper’s co-authors) is an electrical engineering and computer sciences graduate student who shared a standard home rooftop array as a comparison. “A typical rooftop solar installation in Massachusetts is about 8,000 watts,” Saravanapavanantham explained. “To generate that same amount of power, our fabric photovoltaics would only add about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) to the roof of a house.”
Durability is also a key component for any viable solar cell array, a feature the ONE Lab team demonstrated in its new design by reportedly rolling and unrolling the fabric over 500 times, which only resulted in a less than 10 percent loss in potential power generation.
[Related: A tiny, foldable solar panel is going to space. ]
Unfortunately, MIT’s impressive solar fabric isn’t quite ready to sew into your clothes just yet. The team is still looking for the right material to protect the product. Because the cells are made of carbon-based organic material, they would quickly lose their capabilities to exposure to oxygen and moisture in the air.
” We are trying to remove as much non-solar-active material from the paper as possible while still retaining form factor and performance of these flexible and ultralight solar structures,” Jeremiah Mwaura (one of the paper’s co-authors) explained to MIT. Once this problem is solved, the solar fabric can be applied to many surfaces to provide much-needed green, renewable energy to everyday life.
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