MIT Scientists Achieve Breakthrough with Ultrathin and Superlight Solar Cells

Solar cells have breached a new frontier with scientists announcing that they’ve developed solar power cells that can comfortably perch on a soap bubble and not cause it to pop. This marks the creation of the thinnest and lightest solar power cells known to man. The breakthrough comes from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The ultra-lightweight photovoltaic (PV) cells can be easily placed on the surface of everyday use items such as fabrics, glass, and paper, among other things. PV cells function by converting the light emitted by the sun into electricity.

The thickness of the average human hair is just about 100 microns but the lightweight solar cells beat that by a wide margin with their 1.3-micron thickness. The unbelievably thin PV cells are also extremely light in weight – weighing only about 0.01 lbs/square yard. According to a report on livescience.com, that makes them 20 times lighter than the average sheet of office paper.

How Efficient are the Lightest Solar Power Cells?

The team behind the development claims that the efficiency of the new super-thin and ultra-light solar power cells is nearly at par with conventional solar power cells made of materials such as glass. However, it’s not so common to see flexible cells perform as well as glass cells or other rigid cells. What that also means is that the new cells have an exceptionally good power-to-weight ratio – among the highest ever achieved in PV cells. This means that the solar cells can be used in applications where weight is most critical, such as in aircraft or space shuttles.

The new cells make use of DB – an organic compound – as the key light-absorbing material. The actual solar cells are placed in between parylene layers. The benefit of using parylene is that it’s transparent flexible, and widely available commercially. The fabrication of the sandwiched solar cells and their additional coatings is done in a vacuum chamber and doesn’t involve the use of solvents. Unlike conventional solar cells, these new solar cells don’t need to be exposed to high temperatures when being fabricated.

As eager as we might be to see these solar cells available on the commercial market, it will still be a few years before that happens. That’s because taking a lab-grown technology and bringing it to the market takes at least a decade.

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