Solar Goes to Yoga, Gets Flexible

Camping scenario 1, reality: July 4th spent on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay is full of hiking, swimming, getting sunburned . . . the usual. After streaming music from smart phones for a teach-me-how-to-shuffle dance party, we are left technologically high and dry the next day when drained batteries thwart our efforts to look up the public transportation schedule. Fleeing from patriotic revelers at Pier 39, we slowly stumble home on foot and collapse in dehydration-induced comas.

Fast forward through July 8, 2011 – when a team at MIT publishes a paper in Advanced Materials about their breakthrough in flexible printed solar cells – to camping scenario 2, The Future: We spend the day not getting sunburned because we’re wearing sweat-wicking, UVA-protective shirts with rad designs printed on the backs. Our phones are stashed in sleeve pockets, tiny induction coils providing a small but steady charge. The rest of the weekend is obvious – dance party rages, raccoons steal the marshmallows forgotten on the picnic table, and we speed home on the fastest bus route predicted by Google Maps with plenty of time for a much-needed shower before dinner.

[Photo care of Patrick Gillooly at MIT]

Solar cells printed onto a t-shirt – or backpack, umbrella, roofing shingles, convertible car top, anything that can do double-duty while sitting in the sun absorbing energy – aren’t too farfetched. MIT’s technique uses vapor-deposition at temperatures under 120 degrees Celsius [248 degrees Fahrenheit], which are gentle enough conditions – compared to the liquid chemicals at 800 C [1,470 F] for traditional panels – to scrap the glass that’s usually used as a substrate in favor of anything from newspaper to thin PET plastic to cloth. Eliminating inconveniences like the structural mountings to support heavy panels and significantly reducing the time and cost of manufacturing opens up a myriad of new opportunities for solar power.

I’m imagining solar cells printed onto stickers with blinky LED’s, applied guerrilla-style to lampposts and sidewalks in a new age of eco-friendly graffiti. I can see refugee camps draped in mosquito-proof bunting, reading lights hanging from every pole. I want baseball stadium seat covers powering butt warmers; shrink-wrapped, dry-docked boats storing up for the summer season; a foldable electronic newspaper with wifi-transmitted articles on one side and cells on the other.

Although the printed panels are only about 1% efficient right now, they’ve been run through a gauntlet to test durability, from laser printing [high toner-fusing temperature] to negligence [left in a cabinet for a year], and can even survive a thousand folds and unfolds without a loss of performance. This amazing video shows the real time voltage of a cell as it’s accordioned in and out.

With this advancement, one day power could be as simple as a few sheets of crumpled paper – electricity literally pulled out of your back pocket. How would you use it?

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