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Thin is In: Solar Power Panels Get Skinny

By Edited Feb 13, 2014 0 1

Solar Efficiency Improvements

In case you didn’t know that solar power panels have a weight problem—they do.  That is, they did until the latest incarnation hit the alternative energy scene.  The beauty of tissue-paper thin solar cells would enhance transportation making it far cheaper to transport panels to remote areas.  In fact, such cells could even be employed on spacecraft according to a report by ScienceDaily (sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130626153926.htm).  Still in their infancy in terms of efficiency, thin solar cells have the potential to revolutionize the design of the  solar energy panel once their potential is realized.

Skinny Solar Cells


According to the report, the latest research by MIT researchers shows that “sheets of one-molecule-thick materials such as graphene or molybdenum disulfide” could be stacked together to produce a thin, lightweight solar cell.  The researchers have stacked two layers together to make one that is between one and two percent efficient—a far cry from the twenty percent efficiency level of today’s design, but promising for its potential applications.  Moreover, by stacking more tissue-paper thin layers into the cell, greater efficiency could be obtained.  Tissue paper is, however, a misnomer as the layers would be designed to be “thousands of times thinner and lighter than tissue paper.”

According to a report about the research in EE Times, “MIT estimates that its ultra-thin solar cell films -- essentially two-dimensional (2D) layers as thin as one nanometer -- can deliver 1,000 times more energy-per-pound than conventional types. The tradeoff is that their efficiency is lower, requiring about 10 times the area of a conventional solar cell” (eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=131884).  The report also states that they  could reduce the cost of insulation as different and less expensive materials could theoretically be used to produce the cells.  So, just to drive the metaphor home, the skinny cells could fit into new—and possibly better—clothes.  

Lightweight Solar Power Panels


Employing such waifish-thin solar cells to create panels would result in the lightest thing going in solar energy.  From a logistical standpoint, hauling such panels to the tops of solar towers would be a virtually trouble-free.  Yet it’s the far-reaching applications like spacecraft outfitted with solar power that have the MIT researchers quite smitten with the idea of skinny solar cells.  Moreover, while they acknowledge that more research into the multi-layer skinny solar cell must be done, they also assert that “For applications where weight is a crucial factor -- such as in spacecraft, aviation or for use in remote areas of the developing world where transportation costs are significant -- such lightweight cells could already have great potential,” according to ScienceDaily.  

Considering Cost


Researchers are dreaming of the applications for their thin panels, but they are also motivated by cost factors.  These new skinny solar cells could be a decisive factor in their adoption.  According to the EE Times report, “The material cost for ultra-thin solar cells would be minimal, compared to conventional types.” Cost considerations coupled with durability concerns and efficiency levels are still elements the researchers are considering as they move forward with their developments. Still, because each cell will only require a miniscule amount of material to be produced, the cost per cell is predicted to be incredibly cheap.

Of course, the cost benefits of the thin panels may even extend to other aspects of energy infrastructures.  MIT News asserts that “this slenderness is not only advantageous in shipping, but also in ease of mounting them. About half the cost of today’s panels is in support structures, installation, wiring and control systems, expenses that could be reduced through the use of lighter structures” (web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/thinner-solar-panels-0626.html).  

Solar Cell Future


This type of technology is evidence that the future is closer than previously thought.  These ultra-thin cells will be the thinnest things going in solar energy and are likely to transform the next wave of solar panels.  MIT will be testing different material and stacking various layers to gauge them for efficiency and flexibility in the coming months, but they are certainly on to something large for solar energy platforms of tomorrow.  This technology has a bright future in store for it once the potential is fully realized.  

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Comments

Jul 15, 2013 7:04pm
betsycole
I am totally excited about all of the new solar enhancements coming out. One of the criticisms of solar power has been that you burn enough fossil fuel making the panels to offset the first few years of solar production, and I think these new panels are going to really shift that balance.
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