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Tiny solar cells may one day let us all become walking power plants

A sample of Sandia National Labs' tiny photovoltaic cells.
A sample of Sandia National Labs' tiny photovoltaic cells.
From Murat Okandan at Sandia Natl. Labs

Researchers at Sandia National Labs, located in Albuquerque, NM, are developing solar cells with diameters ranging from 0.25-1 mm. These itsy-bitsy solar cells are about as efficient as the big boys, but use 100 times less material.

As with most photovoltaic cells, they are made of silicon. Standard silicon solar cells are six by six inches square and inflexible, which is why solar panels are big and flat. Solar panels’ size and fragility limits where you can put them. These glitter-sized solar cells, however, could be applied to any surface, no matter the shape, or possibly even woven into fabrics. How much cooler would those new jeans be if they could charge your cell phone?

Also, solar cells will stop working if too much of their surface is covered (try it with your solar calculator, if you have one). In the news release from Sandia, project lead Greg Nielson states, “The shade tolerance of our units to overhead obstructions is better than conventional (photovoltaic ) panels because portions of our units not in shade will keep sending out electricity...”

The solar cells’ small size gives rise to a boat load of potential improvements including built-in power storage, to keep you going when the sun goes down, and augmenting the output of the cells by placing “microlenses” to focus light on the cells.

The cells can be built with existing manufacturing techniques, but the Sandia scientists are working on cheaper methods that could put these cells into mass production for less than what it costs to make old-fashioned solar cells. Imagine a world where everything generates electricity! Every city on the planet could look just like Las Vegas! Forget that last statement, it could lose these guys their funding.

To learn more, check out the news release.


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