Solar Cells As Light As A Soap Bubble

MIT has recently announced a new generation of solar cells so thin, flexible and lightweight that they can be used on almost any material surface, from your shirt and smartphone to a helium balloon and even a soap bubble! The innovation comes MIT and a research team lead by professor Vladimir Bulović.

Solar cells are typically made up of three separate parts: the solar cell itself (which absorbs light), the substrate onto which the cells are placed and a protective overcoat. This protective layer is usually made of glass, shielding the build up from the elements. This build up is not ideal however, not only because the use of glass makes the build up heavy, but also because three very different elements must be manufactured separately and then assembled together, adding to costs and leaving numerous weak points between the different components where water, dust and dirt can infiltrate.

MIT’s breakthrough comes by ‘growing’ the solar cell, substrate and protective layer in one process, using mainly the same materials. The team of researchers, lead by MIT professor Vladimir Bulović used a common flexible polymer known as paralyene for the substrate and protective layer while the solar cell is made from an organic material called DBP. Using a process called vapour deposition, the layers are grown on top of each other. Despite being 400 times lighter than a standard solar cell and so incredibly light it can be balanced on a soap bubble without popping it, the resulting solar cell is incredibly efficient, producing six watts of electricity per gram, in addition to minimizing points of failure and the use of different materials in its makeup.

Though it may take years to develop into a commercial product, the laboratory proof-of-concept shows a new approach to making solar cells that could help power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

The work was supported by Eni S.p.A. via the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center, and by the National Science Foundation.

Source and more information via MIT News here.