MIT Produces Ultralight Fabric Solar Cells

Engineers at MIT have developed ultralight fabric solar cells that can be affixed to any surface to quickly and easily turn it into a power source.

These solar cells are much thinner than a human hair, and can be glued to a strong, lightweight fabric – in this case, Dyneema fabric – making them easy to install on a fixed surface. The team envisions multiple potential uses: they could be made into a wearable power fabric; integrated onto the sails of a boat to provide power while at sea; applied to tents and tarps for use in disaster recovery operations; or adhered onto the wings of drones to extend their flying range. The team claims that they are one-hundredth the weight of conventional solar panels, generate 18 times more power-per-kilogram, and are made from semiconducting inks using printing processes that can be scaled in the future to large-area manufacturing.

A typical home rooftop solar installation is about 8 kW, adding about 1,000 lbs. weight to the roof. The Dyneema-affixed solar cell would only add 44 lbs. (~ 20 kilos) to produce the same amount of power. The cells have also been shown to resist stress-tests well – after rolling and unrolling a fabric solar panel more than 500 times, the cells still retained more than 90% of their initial capacity.

Previously, work was performed on solar cells using thin-film materials, but these were produced using complex, vacuum-based processes, which can be expensive and challenging to scale up. This prompted the team to develop thin-film solar cells that are entirely printable, using ink-based materials and scalable fabrication techniques.

“The metrics used to evaluate a new solar cell technology are typically limited to their power conversion efficiency and their cost in dollars-per-watt. Just as important is integrability—the ease with which the new technology can be adapted. The lightweight solar fabrics enable integrability, providing impetus for the current work. We strive to accelerate solar adoption, given the present urgent need to deploy new carbon-free sources of energy,” says Vladimir Bulović, senior author of the paper.