Harnessing the power of the sun has taken a significant leap forward as scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed solar cells thinner than a strand of human hair, capable of transforming any surface into a power source. The revolutionary technology, using a process akin to printing designs on a t-shirt, allows these ultra-thin cells to be laminated onto a wide variety of surfaces. The applications are vast, from empowering maritime travel by attaching to boat sails, to aiding disaster recovery operations by providing power to temporary shelters, and even extending the range of drones by integrating onto their wings.
The groundbreaking research, published in the journal Small Methods, was led by a team including Vladimir Bulović, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, 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 team faced a significant challenge in finding a material that was lightweight, flexible, yet strong enough to adhere to these delicate solar cells without causing damage. Their solution was Dyneema Composite Fabric, renowned for its incredible strength. The team’s innovative approach effectively decouples the process of solar cell manufacturing from its final integration, offering a new level of flexibility in solar energy application.
Solar Energy Revolution: MIT Scientists Develop Ultra-Thin, Lightweight Solar Cells
Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed solar cells thinner than a strand of human hair that can convert any surface into a source of power. These innovative cells could be applied to various surfaces, such as boat sails, tents, or drone wings, to provide a flexible, portable source of energy.
A New Approach to Solar Energy
The research, published in the journal Small Methods, was conducted by a team comprising Vladimir Bulović, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, 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 scientists developed these ultra-thin solar cells using printable electronic inks in a process similar to t-shirt printing. The major challenge was finding a resilient material that could adhere to these fragile cells. The answer came in the form of Dyneema Composite Fabric, a material known for its exceptional strength.
How It Works
The production process involves printing the electrodes onto a flat plastic sheet, which is then glued to the Dyneema fabric. Once the fabric picks up the electrodes, the now clean plastic sheet is removed. This technique allows the solar cell manufacturing to be conducted independent of the final integration, allowing for a wider selection of potential receiving surfaces.
Power Per Kilogram
Although these new cells generate only half the energy per unit area compared to traditional silicon panels, they produce 18 times more power per kilogram. In testing, the solar cells produced about 730 watts per kilogram of energy freestanding and about 370 watts per kilogram when deployed on Dyneema fabric. This lightweight alternative could drastically reduce the weight impact of traditional solar installations.
Reimagining Solar Deployment and Manufacturing
The MIT team’s primary goal is to make solar energy more accessible and portable, not to replace traditional solar panels entirely. As Bulović explains, these new cells could completely transform how we deploy and manufacture solar cells, potentially as quickly as printing a newspaper.
As the demand for clean, renewable energy continues to grow, this breakthrough could revolutionize solar energy, making it more accessible and adaptable to a variety of applications.
The development of these paper-thin solar cells represents a major step forward in the renewable energy sector. Not only do they offer a lightweight, flexible alternative to traditional solar panels, but their potential for rapid production and deployment could significantly accelerate the adoption of solar energy. Furthermore, the capacity to attach these cells to a wide range of surfaces opens up numerous possibilities for their use in remote areas or situations where traditional solar panels are impractical. It’s an exciting glimpse into the future of renewable energy.