Researchers at MIT have created solar cells that are so thin and lightweight that placing them on top of a soap bubble does not pop the bubble. Measuring just two micrometers thick, the photovoltaic cells are the thinnest and lightest ever produced, and the flexible solar cells also have one of the highest power-to-weight ratios ever achieved.
The cells were assembled entirely in a vacuum chamber to minimize exposure to dust and other particles that could negatively affect the cells' power generation capabilities. The light-absorbing layer, an organic material called DBP, is sandwiched between a substrate and overcoating of parylene, which is a plastic coating commonly used to protect circuit boards and biomedical implants.
Manufacturing solar cells generally requires high temperatures and the use of strong chemicals. MIT's new super-thin cells, on the other hand, can be created at room temperature using a process known as to deposit the substrate and DBP solar cells. Researchers believe that the process of making the thin solar cells is reliable enough to ultimately scale-up production.
The work "has tremendous implications for maximizing power-to-weight (important for aerospace applications, for example), and for the ability to simply laminate photovoltaic cells onto existing structures," said Max Shtein, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan who did not work on the project himself, to .
The current cells are just a proof-of-concept, but the research opens the door for the same production method to be used to create solar cells from a variety of materials. The MIT researchers actually believe that cells that are slightly thicker would be better for commercial applications, such as coating electronics, vehicles, or even clothing in power-generating cells.