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New bendy solar panels based on leaves

4th May 2012

New solar panel technology based on leaves could make green electricity generation less expensive and more efficient.

A team of boffins at Princeton University have revealed that by simply adding tiny folds to the surface of photovoltaic panels, they can dramatically increase their exposure to sunlight.

The folding technology can also help to boost solar panel durability - which means they retain their capabilities even after bending.

This means that energy can be generated in a more effective way - and could even result in solar panels appearing in the unlikeliest of places.

Leaves provided the perfect inspiration, according to Princeton University chemical and biological engineering professor Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo.

"If you look at leaves very closely, they are not smooth, they have these sorts of structures. We'd like to mimic this geometric effect in synthetic, man-made light-harvesting systems," she said.

By branching out from traditional flat solar panels, the possibilities are virtually endless.

Soon, she explains, we could see solar panel technology being used on all types of surfaces, from outdoor walls or window panel inserts to even the fabric on backpacks.

"On a flat surface, the light is either absorbed or it bounces back," Loo says. But the new technology incorporates wrinkles, waves and twists, which facilitate better absorption of sunlight.

Princeton researchers have also been looking beyond silicon - which is what most rooftop solar panels are made of - to investigate if other materials may make it easier and cheaper to generate electricity from sunlight.

The panels used in the new Princeton study - which was published in the scientific journal Nature Photonics - were made out of flexible plastic, which Loo says could offer a lower-cost solution.

Up until now, it has been hard to get plastic panels to perform as efficiently as their silicon counterparts - but the technology is improving all the time.

Commercial development targets generally require panel efficiency of between ten and 15 per cent - and recent research from UCLA in California has created a panel system that has 10.6 per cent efficiency. This could be a promising sign that the technology is almost there - and with Loo's folding technology added to the mix, cheaper and more flexible panels could soon be our reality.

Would you wear a flexible solar panel on your bag when you're out and about?

Posted by Mike Peacock

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