Grown in a vacuum at room temperature, and one-fiftieth the thickness of a human hair, these are nothing like the rooftop and roadside solar cells you’ve seen in the past. In fact, you might hardly notice these photovoltaics at all if they are applied—as a proof-of-concept suggests will be possible— to clothing, electronic devices, or high-altitude balloons. The next generation of solar cells, developed by MIT faculty member Vladimir Bulović, researcher Annie Wang, and doctoral student Joel Jean, can be made tiny and light enough to balance on a soap bubble without popping it.
The latest edition of Organic Electronics describes the breakthrough. According to Bulović, who is MIT’s associate dean for innovation and the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology, “the innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device”—meaning that the manufacturing process could be applied to a number of different materials. An article this week in the Christian Science Monitor also notes that the process does not require “the addition of solvents and chemicals not used in the final product, unlike more demanding solar-cell production methods commonly employed today.”