As the power demand for gaming continues to increase, renewable energy is even more important. And not just from an environmental perspective – having solar panels on my house is half the reason I can afford to run all my weird electronics. We can even potentially harness energy from any heat source using inverted solar panels (opens in a new tab). The future of a high-tech home is undoubtedly powered at least in part by solar energy, and now that future is coming to textiles.
Researchers at MIT (opens in a new tab) has developed a paper-thin solar cell that can be attached to any surface. Thanks to its light and flexible nature, this means fabrics, and it has the potential to open up a world of possibilities. Think wearables that don’t need to be charged, battery packs, self-powered tents, solar sails on actual boats. Of course, there are some hurdles to overcome first.
The biggest one is protection. Think of the solar cell as a squishy solar mag that needs someone to play tank or some kind of protective barrier to protect it from, well, literally everything. Usually this is done with thick glass, which is obviously not ideal for a flexible panel, so the team is still working on solving this problem.
“Encapsulating these solar cells in heavy glass, which is standard with the traditional silicon solar cells, will minimize the value of the current progress, so the team is currently developing ultra-thin packaging solutions that will only increase the weight of the current ultra-light devices by a fraction,” explained MIT researcher Jeremiah Mwaura.
“We are working to remove as much of the non-solar active material as possible, while retaining the form factor and performance of these ultralight and flexible solar cell structures. For example, we know that the manufacturing process can be further streamlined by printing the releaseable substrates, corresponding to the process we use to fabricate the other layers of our device. This will accelerate the translation of this technology to the market,” he added.
Other than that, these cells seem to be a super promising step in solar technology. Not only are they thin and light enough to laminate on virtually any surface, they also offer quite a bit of bang for the buck when it comes to power return. Tests so far have indicated that they generate about 18 times more power per kilogram than conventional solar cells, although this can change depending on the material and coating.
Although they need protection from the elements, the cells seem to be quite durable when it comes to flexibility and use. When attached to the Dyneema fabric, the solar cells retained more than 90 percent of their original power generation capability even after being rolled and unrolled over 500 times.
And perhaps the most important thing about this new technology is that it is scalable. We’ve seen tiny solar power before, but it’s often made with expensive processes that are only good for experimentation. These modules use a process similar to screen printing a T-shirt.
As with any technology that gets me so excited, there’s no time frame for when we can expect to see it in commercial use. Although promising, much of this technology gets bogged down in research or eventually hits a hole. I have dreamed of graphene batteries (opens in a new tab) for years now and they would work great with these flexible panels, if any of them see the light of day.