Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley say have found a way to make cheap plastic solar cells flexible enough to paint onto any surface and potentially able to provide electricity for wearable electronics.
The cutting-edge technology is set to open up a realm of possibilities for clothing companies looking to develop “smart apparel”, with radios, small computer processors and other low-power devices able to be powered by the sun.
The solar cells feature semiconductor technology and consist of nanorods dispersed in an organic polymer or plastic, in a layer only 200 nanometres thick.
This is sandwiched between two electrode layers, with each layer applied to a surface in separate coats, making production relatively easy, the researchers revealed in a news release.
Although the technology has an electrical efficiency of only 1.7 per cent at the moment, the scientists are confident they will soon be able to significantly improve that figure.
One of the group’s leading researchers, Janke J Dittmer, explained: “The beauty of this is that you could put solar cells directly on plastic, which has unlimited flexibility.
“This opens up all sorts of new applications, like putting solar cells on clothing to power LEDs, radios or small computer processors.”
They also hope to tune the nanorods to absorb different colours to span the spectrum of sunlight. An eventual solar cell might have three layers, each made of nanorods that absorb at different wavelengths.
“For this to really find widespread use, we will have to get up to around 10 per cent efficiency,” said lead researcher A Paul Alivisatos said. “But we think it’s very doable.”
He added: “There is a pretty clear path for us to take to make this perform much better.”