Just in Time for Christmas: Itsy-Bitsy Solar PV


One of the big obstacles to industrial-strength solar power is space: photovoltaic technology used in solar panels, which transforms sunlight into an electrical current, takes up valuable real estate. And one of the biggest obstacles to portable solar power is also size: Who wants to haul around a 2-pound PV panel just to charge a flashlight?

Then again, what if you could sprinkle tiny PV cells on your hat? And dust them generously on the outside of your drapes?

Using microelectric manufacturing techniques developed at foundries, scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have figured out how to fashion “glitter-size” PV cells from crystalline silicon, one of those useful materials that absorb the sun’s photons and bounce back electrons. The snowflake-like cells are lighter, more efficient and more flexible than ordinary solar technology; five of them can fit across the width of a single human hair.

Sandia lead investigator Greg Nielson says that the units could be built into tents and clothing, making “it possible for hunters, hikers or military personnel in the field to recharge batteries for phones, cameras and other electronic devices as they walk or rest.”

Another Sandia researcher, Murat Okandan, confirms they’ll be cheap, using “100 times less silicon to generate the same amount of electricity” as the standard 6-inch by 6-inch cells. “One of the biggest scale benefits is a significant reduction in manufacturing and installation costs compared with current PV techniques,” Okandan says. They can even be surrounded by minature solar concentrators – teeny-tiny mirrors – to increase output.

So what’s the downside? It’s probably too soon to tell. No one's saying anything about when PV-encrusted shade structures will be on the shelves at REI. But if the technology moves forward, it could change forever the way we produce electricity, and potentially alter a few ongoing debates about where we should generate our power. You won’t have to look for a large plot of open space. Just figure out which item in your hiking wardrobe would look best all sparkly with glitter. 

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