Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

Super-Skinny Solar Cells

MIT researchers invent new method to make streamlined photovoltaics.

Imagine solar cells so thin, flexible, and lightweight that they could be placed on almost any material or surface.

Three MIT researchers have demonstrated just such a technology: the thinnest, lightest solar cells ever produced. Though it may take years to develop into a commercial product, the laboratory demonstration by MIT professor Vladimir Bulović, research scientist Annie Wang, and doctoral student Joel Jean shows a new approach to making solar cells that could help power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

Bulović, MIT’s associate dean for innovation, says the key to the new approach is a single process to make the solar cell, the substrate that supports it, and a protective coating to shield it from the environment. The substrate is made in place and never needs to be handled, cleaned, or removed from the vacuum chamber in which it is fabricated, thus minimizing exposure to dust or other contaminants that could degrade the cell’s performance.

“The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulović says.

The MIT team made a solar cell so thin and lightweight it can be draped on a soap bubble without popping it.

The team used a common flexible polymer called parylene, a widely used plastic coating, as both the substrate and the overcoating, and an organic material called DBP as the primary light-absorbing layer. The entire process takes place in a vacuum at room temperature and does not involve any solvents. (In contrast, conventional solar-cell manufacturing requires high temperatures and harsh chemicals.) In this case, both the substrate and the solar cell are “grown” using established vapor deposition techniques.

The result is an ultrathin solar cell that is exceptionally powerful for its weight. Whereas a typical silicon-based solar module, whose weight is dominated by a glass cover, may produce about 15 watts of power per kilogram of weight, the new cells have already demonstrated an output of six watts per gram—about 400 times higher.

To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble. It didn’t pop.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook,” Bulović says. “These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration 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.