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MIT Researchers Crack The Code On Cheaply Printing Solar Cells On Paper, Fabric

Now panels can be made lightweight, cheaply, and cleanly. It could be the first step in revolutionizing how we generate solar power.

solar cells

Researchers have long toyed with the idea of printing solar cells onto paper. But MIT researchers have taken the idea one giant step further with a process that cheaply and easily prints out solar cells on regular plastic, cloth, or paper–without the need for high temperatures or potentially damaging liquids. It’s still in the research stages at the moment–the cells barely produce enough to power a cell phone–but light, cheap, flexible solar panels could one day be revolutionary.

The process is, according to MIT, much like the one used make the “silver lining in your bag of potato chips.” Layers of “inks” are printed onto a sheet of paper. The materials form patterns of solar cells on the paper’s surface, which is also used as the solar cell’s substrate (traditional solar cells use more expensive materials like glass as a substrate). Wires can be attached directly to the cells. Voila! Solar power.

Check out the paper cells in action:

The solar cells produced by the process are durable, too; they can function even when folded into paper airplane form. And a solar cell printed onto PET plastic can be folded and unfolded a thousand times without losing performance. MIT even ran the cells through a laser printer and found that the heat of that process didn’t damage the panels.

The paper-printed solar cells still only have an efficiency of 1%–enough to power a tiny gadget–but the implications for this kind of technology are huge. Solar cell costs could drop dramatically without the high costs of substrates like glass and installation (these solar cells could be used as, say, wallpaper or window curtains). Paper costs just one-thousandth as much as glass to cover a given area. And the lightweight cells could more easily be transported to remote places in the developing world. Just imagine: a truck filled with millions of pieces of solar cell-covered loose leaf paper.

[Image: MIT/Patrick Gillooly]

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.



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