Stanford Professor Develops Stick-On Solar Cells

Xiaolin Zheng, an associate professor at Stanford, is sticking to what may revolutionize solar energy as we know it: stick-on solar cells.

The creation of a thin, flexible, and adhesive solar cell could mean generating powering on way more than just rooftops.

Named one of the 2014 Emerging Explorers by National Geographic, Zheng explained to the magazine how the idea was born out of a comment from her father. “In China, the rooftops of many buildings are packed with solar energy devices,” said Zheng in the article. “One day my father mentioned how great it would be if a building’s entire surface could be used for solar power, not just the roof, but also walls and windows.”

This innovation — to make solar cells extremely thin so they can be applied in totally new ways — could lead to many new applications, making the technology even more affordable. Consider all the applications stick-on solar cells could have, from the sides of buildings to airplanes, automobiles, home security systems, sidewalks, or even as a replacement to batteries. Imagine being able to pick up a pack of solar cells at the store to power everything in your home!

Normally, solar cells are heavy, which has limited their use. And although plastic is certainly flexible, it can’t take the high temperatures needed to create sheets of solar panels. So how do these ultra-thin solar cells work?

“Our new technique lets us treat the solar cells like a pizza. When you bake pizza, you use a metal pan that can tolerate high temperatures. But when it’s time to distribute the pizza economically, it’s placed in a paper box,” said Zheng.

Unlike heavier panels, the active solar cell Zheng produced can be attached to any surface, like the back of a mobile phone or a curved shape. They also produce the same amount of electricity as heavier, rigid cells, but they’re lighter, therefore they’ll be less expensive to install compared to conventional panels. The technology could be game-changing in developing countries where the major hurdle is initial cost and uncertain timelines. With this technology, the installation would be cheaper, quicker and would not require the same long-term financing that currently makes solar technology a good investment.

While Zheng and her team are still testing the technology, it’s a promising endeavor with exciting possibilities.

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