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New Solar Cells are So Thin, Flexible and Light that They Can Rest on a Soap Bubble

First Posted: Feb 29, 2016 07:41 AM EST

Scientists may have created solar cells that are so thin, flexible and lightweight that they rival a soap bubble. They've created the thinnest and lightest solar cells ever produced.

The key to the new approach is to make the solar cell, the substrate that supports it, and a protective overcoating to shield it from the environment all in one process. The substrate is made in place and never needs to be handled, cleaned or removed from the vacuum during fabrication. This minimizes exposure to dust or other contaminants that could degrade the cell's performance.

In the initial proof-of-concept experiment, the researchers used a common, flexible polymer called parylene as both the substrate and the overcoating, and an organic material called DBP as the primary light-absorbing layer. Parylene is a commercially available plastic coating used widely to protect implanted biomedical devices and printed circuit boards from environmental change. The entire process takes place in a vacuum chamber without the use of any solvents.

While the solar cell in the demonstration wasn't especially efficient due to its low weight, its power-to-weight ratio is among the highest ever achieved. This is especially important in applications where weight is important, such as on spacecraft.

"It could be so light that you don't even know it's there, on your shirt or on your notebook," said Vladimir Bulovic, one of the researchers, in a news release. "These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures."

The findings are published in the journal Organic Electronics.

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