‘As rapid as printing a newspaper’

Scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed solar cells made of paper that can be attached on any surface.

The cells, which are smaller than a human hair, could be laminated to various surfaces. They could, for example, be applied to the sails of boats to provide electricity while at sea or to tents and tarps used in disaster relief operations.

The findings were first published in the journal Small Methods in a paper co-authored by 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.

Scientists created designs using electronic printable inks. The technique is similar to the way t-shirts are printed. Scientists searched for a flexible, lightweight material that would adhere to these solar cells, as they are thin and fragile. They chose Dyneema Composite Fabric because of its strength.

After printing electrodes onto a sheet of flat plastic, the team glued it to Dyneema. They then peeled off the fabric which had taken up the electrodes to reveal a clean piece of plastic.

“While it might appear simpler to just print the solar cells directly on the fabric, this would limit the selection of possible fabrics or other receiving surfaces to the ones that are chemically and thermally compatible with all the processing steps needed to make the devices,” Saravanapavanantham told MIT News. “Our approach decouples the solar cell manufacturing from its final integration.”

Fast Company reported that although the cells only produce half as much energy per square meter compared to conventional silicon panels, they are able to generate 18 times more electricity per kilogram.

The solar cells produced 730 watts of energy per kilogram when freestanding, and 370 watts of energy per kilogram when deployed on Dyneema. According to MIT News’ report, adding 44 pounds of weight to the roof would generate the same power as an 8,000 watt solar installation in Massachusetts.

Scientists aim to make solar energy portable so it can be used anywhere that traditional solar panels are not suitable.

“My expectation would be that the format of these new cells should allow us to completely rethink how rapidly we can deploy solar cells, and how rapidly we can manufacture solar cells,” Bulović told Fast Company. “In the long run, we think this can be as rapid as printing a newspaper.”

This technology, which makes solar energy more accessible, could revolutionize the industry as demand for renewable and clean energy increases.

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