Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

3-D Solar

A new dimension in photovoltaics

Most solar panels are installed horizontally across rooftops or other surfaces. Some are attached to motorized structures that keep the cells pointed toward the sun as it crosses the sky. But now MIT researchers have found that going vertical—installing solar cells on three-dimensional cubes or towers—could vastly improve the output from a solar array.

Ray catcher: One of several three-dimensional solar structures tested on an MIT rooftop.

The structures they’ve tested show power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat panels with the same base area. Better yet, the biggest boosts in power were seen in situations where improvements are most needed: in locations far from the equator, in winter months, and on cloudier days. The new findings, based on both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules, were published in Energy and Environmental Science.

“I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics,” says the paper’s senior author, Jeffrey Grossman, an associate professor of materials science and engineering.

The MIT team initially used a computer algorithm to explore possible configurations. Then, to confirm their model’s predictions, they built three arrangements of solar cells—a simple cube, a double cube, and a complex accordionlike shape that could be shipped flat and unfolded for installation—and tested them on the roof of MIT’s Building 13 for several weeks.

When they began testing, the researchers were distressed when almost two weeks went by without a clear, sunny day. But then, looking at the data, they realized they had learned something from the cloudy weather: the modules performed much better than conventional flat panels under such conditions.

Cloudy or not, the vertical modules outperform fixed flat panels mainly because the 3-D structures’ vertical surfaces can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings, and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon.

The 3-D modules cost more than ordinary flat panels because they use more photovoltaic cells for a given footprint. But the higher cost is partially balanced by a much higher and more uniform energy output.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.