A typical solar panel—more than five feet long and encased in glass—isn't exactly portable. But a new type of solar technology, miniaturized so that each cell is the size of a piece of glitter, could be used anywhere.
The tiny cells are made from high-efficiency silicon, like standard solar panels. But the new form means that they're not only small but flexible, and can be folded up for transportation, incorporated into clothing, or easily used in electronics.
Conventional solar panels "are brittle because they're crystalline," Murat Okandan, CEO of mPower Technology, the startup making the new technology, tells Co.Exist. "If you bend or flex them, at some point they'll just break and shatter. By making our cells small and then interconnecting them we're able to make them almost unbreakable."
A satellite could carry a tightly-folded solar array into space, and then deploy it when it reaches orbit; a drone could carry a folded array on its wing. Someone on a camping trip could easily fit a large folded array in a backpack.
"You can charge your devices when you're out backpacking, fold it back up, put it in your backpack, and just go," Okandan says.
The technology also has some advantages for solar power on rooftops. The lightweight cells are easier to move around and faster to install, helping reduce the cost of installation. Because the cells are arranged in a dense mesh network, they're more resilient; if one cell loses power or is temporarily shaded, it doesn't affect the whole system. Since the cells are more durable than traditional panels, they'll last longer, making the cost of power cheaper. The design also requires less material for the same amount of power.
Okandan first developed the technology at Sandia National Laboratories, which has a program that allows scientists to leave to start new tech companies (while still guaranteeing their job for three years, if they choose to come back). Potential customers are currently testing prototypes of the technology, called Dragon SCALES ("SemiConductor Active Layer Embedded solar"), or, informally, "solar glitter."
The cost of solar power has fallen dramatically over the last decade, and installations broke records in 2016. But the new technology could help it become even cheaper and scale more easily, particularly in novel applications.