Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Researchers at Harvard studying the feet of geckos have created new polymers that could lead to solar panels able to track the sun autonomously with no external equipment or energy required.

Clean Power

Research Breakthrough Could Lead To “Smart” Solar Panels & Buildings

Researchers at Harvard studying the feet of geckos have created new polymers that could lead to solar panels able to track the sun autonomously with no external equipment or energy required.

One of the problems with solar panels is they stay stationary while the sun moves across the sky. To maximize efficiency requires two axis tracking mechanisms — a horizontal device that allows the panels to follow the sun on its diurnal journey and a vertical device that permits it to adjust to seasonal changes in the sun’s azimuth. Now researchers at the Harvard Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences say they have created shape-shifting polymers that respond to heat and light without any external power required.

LCE graphic

The research began as an attempt to understand the how the pads on the feet of a gecko allow it to adhere to walls and ceilings. They found that setae — highly flexible microscopic hairlike structures  — are the key. Attempts to recreate them using liquid crystal elastomers enjoyed limited success. The researchers could get them to stretch in one or two directions but not three.

The latest research uses magnetic fields during the creation of the LCEs to control their molecular structure. The result is microscopic three dimensional polymer shapes that can be programmed to move in any direction in response to multiple types of stimuli, according to Science Daily. One benefit of the new materials could be solar cells that turn to face the sun the way sunflowers do in nature.

“What’s critical about this project is that we are able to control the molecular structure by aligning liquid crystals in an arbitrary direction in 3D space, allowing us to program nearly any shape into the geometry of the material itself,” says lead author Yuxing Yao. The research results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on December 4. The entire report is available online and includes a number of interesting short videos showing how the LCEs respond in the laboratory. The research has been supported by the US Department of Energy and DARPA.

The research team was able to make LCE shapes that reconfigure themselves in response to light by incorporating light-sensitive cross-linking molecules into the structure during polymerization. This type of self-regulated motion allows LCEs to deform in response to their environment and continuously reorient themselves to autonomously follow the light. Other polymers can be made that respond to multiple stimuli such as light and heat simultaneously.

Other than solar cells that track the sun autonomously, what other uses might there be for these tiny shape-shifters? The technology could also form the basis of autonomous source-following radios, multilevel encryption, sensors, and smart buildings. “Our lab currently has several ongoing projects in which we’re working on controlling the chemistry of these LCEs to enable unique, previously unseen deformation behaviors, as we believe these dynamic bio-inspired structures have the potential to find use in a number of fields,” says Joana Aizenberg, a professor of material science at SEAS.

No doubt DARPA is interested in the encryption possibilities the new LCE polymers present, but the prospect of autonomous solar panels that track the sun without expensive mechanical systems will probably be the application most CleanTechnica readers care most about.

Appreciate CleanTechnica’s originality and cleantech news coverage? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica Member, Supporter, Technician, or Ambassador — or a patron on Patreon.

Don't want to miss a cleantech story? Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we heed his advice.


You May Also Like


Environmental lawmaking to address global warming continues to confront hurdles, especially in conservative media, as money drives polarization over measures to tackle the climate...

Clean Power

Floating offshore wind turbines raise the stakes for nuclear energy stakeholders, with shorter construction time from start to finish.

Green Economy

A new small modular reactor pilot project in Ukraine could provide nuclear power plants with new reasons for being, including sustainable hydrogen and ammonia...


Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a tool that provides accurate measurements and positioning directions while installing energy-efficient panels over existing building...

Copyright © 2022 CleanTechnica. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries.