MIT Scientists Invent Cheap Solar Panels That Can be Printed Like Newspaper

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made a significant breakthrough in solar technology by creating ultra-thin solar cells. These cells are so slender that they can be affixed to almost any surface, transforming it into an energy source.

Remarkably thinner than a strand of human hair, these innovative cells can be applied to a variety of surfaces. For instance, they can be used on boat sails to generate power at sea, on tents and tarps in disaster relief efforts, or even on drone wings to increase their operational range.

This groundbreaking research was detailed in the journal Small Methods, with contributions from Vladimir Bulović, an MIT professor of electrical engineering, Mayuran Saravanapavanantham, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and Jeremiah Mwaura, a research scientist at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The team employed a unique method involving electronic printable inks, akin to the process used in t-shirt printing. Handling these delicate solar cells, prone to tearing, posed a challenge. The researchers sought a material that was not only light and flexible but also durable enough to support the solar cells. They selected Dyneema Composite Fabric, renowned for its exceptional strength.

The process involved printing electrodes onto a plastic sheet, which was then adhered to the Dyneema fabric. Subsequently, the fabric was removed, taking the electrodes with it and leaving behind a pristine plastic sheet.

Saravanapavanantham explained to MIT News the rationale behind their method. Printing the solar cells directly onto the fabric would severely limit the choice of compatible materials. Their technique, however, separates the manufacturing of the solar cells from their final application.

While these cells produce only half the energy per unit area compared to conventional silicon panels, they excel in power-to-weight ratio, generating 18 times more power per kilogram, as reported by Fast Company.

In tests, the cells produced approximately 730 watts per kilogram when freestanding, and around 370 watts per kilogram when applied to Dyneema fabric. To put this into perspective, adding these cells to a roof would only increase its weight by about 44 pounds, yet it would produce the same power as an 8,000-watt traditional solar setup in a Massachusetts home, according to MIT News.

The aim of this research is not to replace traditional solar panels but to enhance the accessibility and portability of solar energy, especially in areas where conventional panels are impractical.

Bulović shared with Fast Company his vision for these cells, anticipating a paradigm shift in the deployment and manufacturing speed of solar cells, potentially as fast as printing a newspaper.

This advancement holds promise for the future of clean and renewable energy, potentially transforming the way solar energy is harnessed and utilized.

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