A solar panel so small, light, thin, and flexible that you can stick it onto just about anything has been developed by engineers at Stanford University. The new peel and stick solar panels actually work more like those temporary tattoos that you apply with water, and there’s a bit of heating involved, so in terms of powering up your mobile devices, the technology is not quite as simple and convenient as popping in a new battery (or, for that matter, plugging into a wall socket). However, the research team has only just begun to tap the possibilities of the new solar panel.
How to Make a Peel & Stick Solar Panel
According to an article by Stanford freelancer Glen Martin, the key to the new solar panel is to sandwich the meat of the solar cell between a removable bottom layer or substrate and a protective top layer that is also removable.
The research team, headed by PhD candidate Chi Hwan Lee, worked with a flexible silicon/silicon dioxide material for the substrate.
The next layer is a nano-film of nickel, and then the actual solar cells are deposited in the form of a thin film.
Over that, goes a layer of protective polymer (plastic) with a heat-activated release tape.
How to Peel and Stick a Solar Panel
Here’s where it gets a bit sticky, so to speak. You can’t just peel the thin-film solar cell off the substrate and stick it onto something in one step. First you have to dunk the whole solar panel in room temperature water and lift up a bit of the release tape, so the water can get between the substrate and the layer of nickel.
That takes care of the substrate (which can be re-used, by the way). Then you have to warm the solar cell all the way up to 90 degrees C before you stick it onto a surface. But it’s not self-sticking. You’ll need to get some glue or double-sided tape for that.
Once the adhesive is set, then you can finally peel off the release tape the rest of the way, along with the protective top layer.
So far, the team has tried the process on paper, plastic, window glass, and other materials. It could work on any number of other surfaces, including curved shapes or rough surfaces such as fabric.
Peel & Stick and Plug & Play Solar Panels
Thin-film solar cells are fabricated using a standard manufacturing process, so in that regard the prospects look good for lowering the cost of producing the new solar panels on a commercial scale.
As far as user-friendliness goes, the new solar panel has a ways to go before it gets to the ease of a true plug and play solar panel. A company called SpinRay, for example, is already marketing a plug and play solar panel you can hang off your deck without any watering, heating, or gluing to do. German company Sun Invention has created and is selling similar plug and play solar panels. One option even comes with storage.
Even in its current form, though, the peel-and-stick model seems to be a little more user friendly than the new solar panel DIY kits that you put together IKEA-style (some people are more challenged by IKEA than others).
In any case, if the new peel and stick solar panel can be simplified and commercialized, its potential for window application could make it a useful resource for low-cost solar-powered homes and other buildings, as a complement to plug and play solar panels or DIY solar kits.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.