New solar panel concept inspired by Japanese paper-cutting art

September 15, 2015 0 By Amanda Giasson
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The new concept could maximize the efficiency of solar cells.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have created a new type of solar panel that looks somewhat like a lattice with the ability to stretch like an accordion, which enables it to capture more energy from the sun by tilting along the sun’s trajectory. The inspiration for the design came from Japanese paper-cutting art known as Kirigami.

These solar cells can capture energy that is otherwise lost by traditional PV panels.

One of the main problems with conventional solar arrays is that while the sun moves, in most cases, the panels do not. Therefore, when the sun changes its position in the sky, these panels won’t be able to generate solar energy, not unless they happen to be on a base that has been designed to tilt and track the sun’s light throughout the day.

Not only are such tracking systems expensive, but as University of Michigan engineer Max Shtein points out, “there’s no way to do it on rooftops.” Shtein collaborated with artist Matt Shlian to produce the design and is also one of the co-authors of the paper “Dynamic kirigami structures for integrated solar tracking”, recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

The kirigami-inspired solar panel can collect 30% more solar power than traditional cells.

The cells consist of thin-film gallium arsenide strips. These flexible strips are cut in a basic, two-dimensional pattern. When stretched, the cells twist and the pattern is pushed out, enabling the cell to become three-dimensional, and allowing it to follow the sun over an angle of about 120 degrees.

According to a National Geographic article, Shtein said that the patterned film can gather 30% more solar power than traditional solar panels. However, the kirigami-inspired panels would need to be twice the size of conventional cells because they need to stretch. “You’re stretching the solar cell, so you have to have room to stretch it,” Shtein said.

Although the fact that these PV (photovoltaic) panels would need to be larger isn’t that much of a problem, there are other potential problem areas with these cells, according to Keith Emery, a scientist who evaluates the designs and efficiency of solar panels for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Emery noted that “There’s a lot of loose ends and a lot of potential problem areas,” in regard to making these cells work on a commercial scale outside of the lab. As far as the mechanics of the design goes, Emery stated that “It’s not clear that that’s going to survive 25 years in the field.”

Thus, while this design may be able to collect more solar energy than conventional PV cells, the question is, will they be as durable?

Plenty of testing still needs to be conducted on this new type of solar panel before it will be ready to be used in the real world. The next step for the researchers is to test the kirigami solar cell concept at larger scales.