Amazing Things

Shrunken Solar Power, The tiniest Solar panel but Powerful!

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Scientists have created a solar cell so thin and light, it can balance on top of a soap bubble without popping it. A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the teensy device as a proof of concept. They wanted to make sure their new tiny design could still do the job of a solar cell—converting sunlight into electricity.

Making Solar Cells

Solar cells (also called photovoltaic cells) make up the solar panels you might find on rooftops. They work to provide an eco-friendly form of energy to power homes and buildings. Traditional solar cells are composed of the element silicon (Si) encased in glass. Silicone is a type ofsemiconductor—a material that doesn’t allow electricity to flow through it as well as a metal does. This property allows it to absorb the sun’s energy and build up an electrical charge.

For the new solar cell, the scientists coated a layer of plastic with a light-absorbing organic compound—a substance made up of the elements carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), and nitrogen (N). Then they placed another layer of plastic on top. Rather than being produced separately and then put together, the scientistsvaporized (turned into a gas) the materials that make up the solar cell’s components inside an airless vacuum chamber. The substances then settled and hardened on a carrier material to form the layers of the cell.

“We put our carrier in a vacuum system, then we deposit everything else on top of it and then peel the whole thing off,” Annie Wang, an electrical engineer who worked on the project, recently told MIT News.

Small But Mighty

The scientists’ innovative process results in solar cells with a thickness of about 2 micrometers (1 micrometer equals 1 one-millionth of a meter). That’s one fiftieth the thickness of a human hair and one thousandth the thickness of a typical solar cell.

Not only are the solar cells lightweight and flexible, the new method used to make them also cuts back on contaminants, like dust, that can reduce their performance. And the new cells provide a lot of energy for their weight. In fact, they have among the best power-to-weight ratios ever achieved—about 400 times higher than silicon solar cells.

The solar cells are so light, that the scientists think they could be placed on research balloons that soar to high altitudes in Earth’s atmosphere. The solar cells could even help power the next generation of ultralight portable gadgets.

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About Barry G. Morris

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