The news: A team of Danish scientists recently discovered how to print huge, flexible solar panels that could one day be used as wallpaper or window coverings to power entire buildings.
In addition to being supple enough to bend and fold, the 14-layer panels are lightweight, making them cheap enough to produce quickly on an industrial scale.
Image Credit: Chemistry World
Typically, solar cells contain three to five layers of energy-harvesting circuits. Frederik Krebs and his research team at the Technical University of Denmark devised a way to produce these cells in tandem, allowing them to stack multiple cells on top of one another. Their work is published in the Royal Society of Chemistry Journal of Energy and Environmental Science.
The result? More energy that's faster and cheaper to produce.
How it works: Flexible solar panels function much the same way other solar power systems work — photovoltaic materials inside the panel capture energy from the sun and transform it into electricity. In 2011, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology figured out they could bond the photovoltaic materials with flexible surfaces — such as plain old paper — by exposing the surface material to powerful vapors using a technique called vapor deposition.
For the new panels, that printing process happens at breakneck speed: Each second, one solar panel is printed onto a sheet of blank foil. After printing, coating and laminating each layer, a machine stacks each piece on top of the other.
Image Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Even though panels aren't ready for commercial production yet, the new research is an important first step, especially since America's solar energy-generating capacity has recently skyrocketed. In the past four years, U.S. solar energy capacity jumped 418%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
No longer a niche industry, solar makes up more than 1% of total U.S. energy bandwidth (geothermal power, by comparison, comprises about 0.4% of the American energy market; wind makes up around 4%). Solar power has also become cost-competitive with coal and natural gas in recent years, making it an important source of future energy for the country.