The Future of Solar: MIT Engineers Develop Paper-Thin Solar Cells
In a significant leap forward for renewable energy technology, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed ultralight fabric solar cells that can transform any surface into a power source. These solar cells are not only durable and flexible but also thinner than a human hair. They are attached to a robust, lightweight fabric, making them easy to install on any fixed surface.
These solar cells can be used as a wearable power fabric or transported and rapidly deployed in remote locations for emergency assistance. They weigh one-hundredth of conventional solar panels and generate 18 times more power-per-kilogram. The fabrication process involves semiconducting inks and printing processes that can be scaled for large-area manufacturing in the future.
The thin and lightweight nature of these solar cells allows them to be laminated onto a variety of surfaces. They could be integrated onto the sails of a boat to provide power at sea, adhered onto tents and tarps used 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 team at MIT, led by Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology, believes that the ease of integration is just as important as power conversion efficiency and cost in dollars-per-watt when evaluating new solar cell technology. The lightweight solar fabrics developed by the team enable this integrability, providing impetus for the current work.
The team’s goal was to develop thin-film solar cells that are entirely printable, using ink-based materials and scalable fabrication techniques. They used nanomaterials in the form of a printable electronic ink to produce the solar cells. The solar cell structure is coated using a slot-die coater, which deposits layers of the electronic materials onto a prepared, releasable substrate that is only 3 microns thick. An electrode is then deposited on the structure to complete the solar module using screen printing.
The researchers found an ideal material—a composite fabric known as Dyneema, which weighs only 13 grams per square meter. This fabric is made of fibers so strong they were used as ropes to lift the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The solar modules are adhered to sheets of this fabric using a layer of UV-curable glue, forming an ultra-light and mechanically robust solar structure.
When tested, the device 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, the fabric photovoltaics would only add about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) to the roof of a house.
The team 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% of their initial power generation capabilities. The team is currently developing ultrathin packaging solutions to protect the solar cells from the environment while retaining the form factor and performance of these ultralight and flexible solar structures.
This groundbreaking research, 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, is a significant step towards a more sustainable future. The development of these ultralight, flexible solar structures could revolutionize the way we harness solar energy, making it more accessible and versatile than ever before.
The team at MIT is committed to further streamlining the manufacturing process and accelerating the translation of this technology to the market. The potential applications of this technology are vast, from powering homes and vehicles to providing emergency power in disaster-stricken areas. As we strive to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and move towards a more sustainable future, innovations like these ultralight solar cells are not just exciting—they’re essential.
This development is a testament to the power of innovation and the potential of renewable energy. As we continue to explore and develop new technologies, we move closer to a future where clean, renewable energy is not just a possibility, but a reality.
In conclusion, the development of paper-thin solar cells by MIT engineers marks a significant milestone in the field of renewable energy. This technology, with its lightweight, flexible, and highly efficient characteristics, has the potential to transform the way we harness and use solar energy, making it more accessible and versatile. As we continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what’s possible, a sustainable future powered by clean, renewable energy becomes increasingly within our reach.