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Scientists Develop Flexible Silicon Solar Cells Thinner Than Human Hair

An international team of scientists has created the first silicon-based fiber-optic solar cell that is as thin as a strand of human hair.

The team, led by Penn State University chemistry professor John Badding, has opened the door to the possibility of weaving together solar cell wires to create flexible, curved or twisted solar fabrics. The technology works by merging optical fibers with crystalline silicon-based electronic chips.

By using high-pressure chemistry techniques, the team has found a way to build a new type of optical fiber is able to maintain its electronic capabilities despite being thinner than a strand of human hair.

This was done by the injection of semiconductor materials into the optical fiber layer by layer.

A coiled strand of a meter-long solar-cell junction fiber, thinner than the width of a human hair. Credit: Badding Lab, Penn State University

“Our goal is to extend high-performance electronic and solar-cell function to longer lengths and to more flexible forms,” Badding said.

“We already have made meters-long fibers but, in principle, our team’s new method could be used to create bendable silicon solar-cell fibers of over 10 meters in length.”

These long, fiber-based solar cells are lightweight and flexible, with potential to weave them into a fabric that could be used in a wide range of applications from power generation and battery charging to chemical sensing and biomedical devices.

“A solar cell is usually made from a glass or plastic substrate onto which hydrogenated amorphous silicon has been grown,” said Badding.

“Such a solar cell is created using an expensive piece of equipment called a PECVD reactor and the end result is something flat with little flexibility. But woven, fiber-based solar cells would be lightweight, flexible configurations that are portable, foldable, and even wearable.”

According to the researchers, their new solar cells have the advantage collecting sunlight from various angles, with its curved surface not having to depend on where the sunlight is coming from.


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