Engineers at MIT are tinkering with all sorts of advanced solar power technology, like self-assembling solar cells, virus-structured cells and an artificial leaf system that mimics photosynthesis. Their latest project is somewhat more simple: It can be printed on a regular sheet of paper.
The cell is tough enough to work even after being folded into a paper airplane — unlike many "flexible" cells, it's not merely bendable, but foldable as well. It's made using a relatively simple vapor deposition process, rather than the typical high-temperature etching process used to make solar cells.
Like the silver ballpoint pen we saw earlier this month, the system uses a 3-D printing technique to deposit materials onto a surface. The process is a little more complex than using a printer, however, because it requires five layers of material and a stencil to form the patterns of the cells. It also has to be done in a vacuum chamber, so it's probably not doable for the average DIY-er.
But as MIT News points out, the vapor deposition process is widely used throughout various industries — it's similar to the process used to make the silver lining in bags of potato chips — so it can be done on a large scale at low cost.
To test their technology, engineers led by chemical engineering professor Karen Gleason folded a paper photovoltaic cell into a paper airplane, and the cell still collected energy from sunlight. They also printed one on a piece of plastic, like the kind used to make soda bottles, and folded that one 1,000 times. It still worked, while a traditionally-produced cell on the same plastic failed after just one fold.
The team even printed a cell on a piece of paper, and then put that paper in a regular laser printer to see what would happen. It still worked, even after a laser-heated layer of toner ink was printed on top of it. In tests, the folded cells were still able to gather ambient sunlight to power a clock and other devices.
They are not that efficient — a paltry 1 percent — but the researchers think that will improve as they fine-tune the "ink" and the deposition process. But even now, "it's good enough to power a small electric gizmo," said engineering professor Vladimir Bulović. Watch a demonstration below.
Foldability is important for portable, cheap circuits — a circuit or PV cell that can withstand being crumpled in a pocket would be a major advancement for portable devices. But the lightweight nature of this cell may be its biggest breakthrough. Functional photovoltaic cells printed on paper or thin plastic could have a host of uses, from lightweight battery technology to portable power for developing countries.
The research is reported in this week's issue of the journal Advanced Materials.
How about you print over the entire body of a tesla model S. That would be pretty sweet.
That would be pretty sweet! Too bad it would only generate enough energy to drive that Tesla for a few minutes a day.
Solar car races typically rely on high efficiency solar cells, and even then you can only make it work by achieving extreme ratios of surface area to the weight of the vehicle.
You can actually buy a solar panel roof for a Prius, but it's only used to power a fan to keep the car cool:
perhaps we can print them on road ways. if they can withstand cars, weather and oil.
Whilst it may be only produce 1% now, this is the sort of tech that will evolve into something useful later on!
Now they just need to hurry up and put them on sun shades for my car here in LA. Damn my interior gets hot in the summer.
I think solar power of any kind is awesome. This energy is produce locally and is installed locally and supported locally. If our USA government grows and developes and infrustructor more of this technology, we have clean power and more jobs. Yes, the technology is still growing, but its realistic potential for the country is much more practical an likely that FUSION or any other billion dollar exotic power technology. Creating jobs localy is such a nice side effect. As I read about the development of solar power, it is often left off in detail the life expectance of these solar panels; they do not last for ever, 10 to 30 years, it varies. They we still need to development more important manage our storage of electrical power. Where do all those batteries go. So much exotic metals are getting in our land fills and drinking water. Now there is a push for floresant light. Imagine all those home users toss that old, worn out floresant light into the trash, mercury and all..... Our government as it pushes forward in technology needs to immediately communicate and develope a public infrusture of this trash.... so much poison is being put in our drinking water....
"They are not that efficient — a paltry 1 percent — " That may be true But if you can fold them and they can be printed on regular paper... then you should be able to print them on wrap graphics and coat the tops of building with them... and cars... bridges... buss stops.... you could print them on sailboat sails.... window tint.... and even though it is 1% efficiency it adds up. and something as light as that would not require any structural modifications.
you could make a car cover out of it and plug it into your electric car and help charge the battery while your car sits in the sun and wastes all that free energy falling on it. And no it wouldnt be much but it isnt bad to start.
Solar tech will only ever be as good as the design process for all the other items we have that use power. We could even reach the theoretical limits of solar efficiency, and unless we design our world for efficient energy use, we'd still be little better off than we are today. I'm glad we're developing the technologies, as it takes a long time and we want to have them ready. But until the day when we're willing to buy a house that is built a little different, costs a little more, and/or looks a little "funny" for the sake of power efficiency, we won't really change much in the world.
Also, I'm always cautious about small applications of advanced energy technologies, due to the true costs. For example, we must consider the actual energy costs of planting/growing/harvesting/processing the tree for the paper, plus the similar costs for the inks, chemicals, transportation of cells and underlying materials, fractional costs of the printers and factories, packaging, etc. Will this type of cell, in its final commercial form, actually ever be expected, in a reasonable and average product lifespan, to produce more net used energy than it took to create it? If not, then there's no point since it won't actually net us any energy, just transfer where that energy is used and when (from the electric utility to say the truck that mined the ore that became one of the materials for the ink).
Now there is another solar energy that is going completely ignored currently. It has to do with static electric and electrical current waves that come and go with the rising and setting sun upon the earth. Mr. Telsa knew all about it and wanted to create a electrical national public infrastructure free electricity for all mankind. His ideas actually worked. But they were later dropped and push to be forgotten. His financial backer, J. Pierpont Morgan, did not like the idea of not making a profit and his support left. Edison production of electricity is produce by explosive force and it’s an electrical power that can be sold. If we could control and harness static electricity, bolts of lightning, boil vast pools of water and let the steam rise up great pipes to the top of mountains, we could then let this water flow back down from the mountains and gather this energy in a slow rate of consumption for society..... on a tangent of the subject, Some scholars believe by the nature of the minerals the Egyptian pyramids were made, there cavities\tunnels lined with granite and leading down the aquifer-makes of tunnels under the ground and the rising and falling of the Nile, produce a electrical charge on the pyramids that charge the whole area, maybe the world and was like a charge beacon toward the heavens and space. Each pyramid was covered to with a cap of insulated type mineral, different color, black, white and red. These pyramids could have be styled and shape to produce a certain frequency. The ancient Egyptians knew how to make good use of the natural power around them. They indeed build the pyramids in a why our engineers still cannot understand clearly today. There are those rich industries and of powerful leaders and polititions, who would naturally be apposed to any good and free electrity. The only true way to combat such way of thinking is free speech and to freely hear eveyrones ideas on the internet.
Cheaper... Lets start putting these panels all over houses, roofs, overhangs etc. It might only be 1%, but put in places that the collection is 0%, that's 100% more power!
Playing Devil's Advocate since 1978
"The only constant in the universe is change"
-Heraclitus of Ephesus 535 BC - 475 BC
It's a start and I'm sure as they develop the technology it will bet more efficient. These are the kind of things the media needs to report more on, but I suppose those of us interested in technology like this are still considered "eggheads" to the masses. In either case great article, I enjoyed it.