Ever since Albert Einstein first proposed the concept in 1921, photovoltaic cells – solar cells – have been at the forefront of alternative fuel and energy research. And while progress has been made, two key factors have remained as stumbling blocks to their widespread adoption: One, the cost of making solar cells; and two, the cost of installing them.
In order for this to change, analysts have predicted for some time that solar panels would need to be printed on cheap, durable materials that could be installed anywhere. Until such time, they would continue to lose out against the gas and coal equivalents, which would continue to generate as much energy as a single solar cell while remaining comparatively cheaper.
And as it turns out, the wait may be coming to an end. According to Silvija Gradecak, a materials science and engineering professor at MIT, new research from around the world is driving us ever closer to that goal. And it is her lab, among others, that is making a major contribution, through the release of a new breed of bendy, peel-and-stick solar panels.
The focus of Gradecak’s team has been on the production of a organic, thin-film cells that are made from abundant materials which could be manufactured on the cheap. And in December of last year, they made a breakthrough with the production of a transparent photovoltaic cell by using flexible graphene and a nanowire coating. This thin, flexible and transparent photo cell, they claimed, could be mounted anywhere and is comparatively cheaper than current silicon based varieties.
Naturally, Gradecak was sure to point out that this development did not take place in a vacuum. Nor was it the only one of its kind:
“”There was a significant effort to develop these type of devices and the slope of this improvement is very high… I personally believe this is not just theoretical. In a couple of years you will see these types of devices commercially.”
And in that respect, she is right. At Stanford, researchers presented their own concept for a next generation solar cell this past December: a flexible, peel-off panel that can stick to almost any surface. Composed of nickel, silicon and silicon dioxide and a protective polymer layer, the cell consists of multiple layers that can be peeled away and applied as needed.
Exciting times, these are, especially when long-awaited environmental solutions are finally becoming feasible. It also inspires hope that we might be able to tackle a little problem known as emissions before it is too late. Of course, that would require making this technology available worldwide, especially in developing economies where coal and gas power are especially lucrative. But anything is doable, especially if the price is right!