Paper-thin solar cell can turn any surface into a power source
MIT engineers have developed ultralight fabric solar cells that can quickly and easily turn any surface into a power source.
These durable, flexible solar cells, which are much thinner than a human hair, are glued to a strong, lightweight fabric, making them easy to install on a fixed surface. They can provide energy on the go as a wearable power fabric or be transported and rapidly deployed in remote locations for assistance in emergencies. They are one-hundredth the weight of conventional solar panels, generate 18 times more power-per-kilogram, and are made from semiconducting inks using printing processes that can be scaled in the future to large-area manufacturing.
Because they are so thin and lightweight, these solar cells can be laminated onto many different surfaces. For instance, they could be integrated onto the sails of a boat to provide power while at sea, adhered onto tents and tarps that are deployed in disaster recovery operations, or applied onto the wings of drones to extend their flying range. This lightweight solar technology can be easily integrated into built environments with minimal installation needs.
“The metrics used to evaluate a new solar cell technology are typically limited to their power conversion efficiency and their cost in dollars-per-watt. Just as important is integrability — the ease with which the new technology can be adapted. The lightweight solar fabrics enable integrability, providing impetus for the current work. We strive to accelerate solar adoption, given the present urgent need to deploy new carbon-free sources of energy,” says Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology, leader of the Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Laboratory (ONE Lab), director of MIT.nano, and senior author of a new paper describing the work.
Joining Bulović on the paper are co-lead authors Mayuran Saravanapavanantham, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student at MIT; and Jeremiah Mwaura, a research scientist in the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics. The research is published today in Small Methods.
When they tested the device, the MIT researchers found it could generate 730 watts of power per kilogram when freestanding and about 370 watts-per-kilogram if deployed on the high-strength Dyneema fabric, which is about 18 times more power-per-kilogram than conventional solar cells.
“A typical rooftop solar installation in Massachusetts is about 8,000 watts. To generate that same amount of power, our fabric photovoltaics would only add about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) to the roof of a house,” he says.
They also tested the durability of their devices and found that, even after rolling and unrolling a fabric solar panel more than 500 times, the cells still retained more than 90 percent of their initial power generation capabilities.
While their solar cells are far lighter and much more flexible than traditional cells, they would need to be encased in another material to protect them from the environment. The carbon-based organic material used to make the cells could be modified by interacting with moisture and oxygen in the air, which could deteriorate their performance.
“Encasing these solar cells in heavy glass, as is standard with the traditional silicon solar cells, would minimize the value of the present advancement, so the team is currently developing ultrathin packaging solutions that would only fractionally increase the weight of the present ultralight devices,” says Mwaura.
“We are working to remove as much of the non-solar-active material as possible while still retaining the form factor and performance of these ultralight and flexible solar structures. For example, we know the manufacturing process can be further streamlined by printing the releasable substrates, equivalent to the process we use to fabricate the other layers in our device. This would accelerate the translation of this technology to the market,” he adds.
This research is funded, in part, by Eni S.p.A. through the MIT Energy Initiative, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.