Scientists in the US have developed thin-film materials with photovoltaic cells capable of producing energy. Much lighter than regular solar panels, they can be added to any type of surface, including clothing!. magine ultra-thin photovoltaic films that could be added to your windowsill, the back of your smartphone or even your clothes!

That’s the idea of a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who have developed thin layers of photovoltaic cells. Made from semiconducting printable electronic inks, these devices are capable of generating about 370 watts of power per kilogram, about 18 times more than conventional solar panels, all while weighing one hundredth of their weight, say the researchers.

Although ultra-thin, these films are robust, as they are protected by a lightweight (13 grams per square meter), but very resistant composite fabric substrate. According to the researchers — whose project is outlined in an article published on the website of the scientific journal, Small Methods — these mini textile solar panels managed to maintain 90% of their power-producing capacity even after being rolled and unrolled more than 500 times!

It’s a project that’s as innovative as it is promising, since these devices could be adapted for use on numerous surfaces, the scope of which could greatly exceed those found in our homes. “For instance, they could be integrated onto the sails of a boat to provide power while at sea, adhered onto tents and tarps that are deployed in disaster recovery operations, or applied onto the wings of drones to extend their flying range,” the researchers explain in a blog post. 

But before this can be achieved, MIT scientists will have to continue their research. One of the materials that makes up the device’s cells is not very resistant to humidity and contact with atmospheric oxygen. The challenge is to find a solution to protect the device, while interfering as little as possible with its lightness and ease of transport.

“Encasing these solar cells in heavy glass, as is standard with the traditional silicon solar cells, would minimize the value of the present advancement, so the team is currently developing ultra-thin packaging solutions that would only fractionally increase the weight of the present ultralight devices,” explains Jeremiah Mwaura, a research scientist in the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics, in a statement.