MIT 3D Solar Panels The Clean Energy Game Changer?

When you think of solar panels, the flat shapes atop homes, carports, office buildings and elsewhere come to mind. This typical design has its pluses and minuses, but has long been the industry standard. MIT researchers, however, look to be turning that model on its head, unveiling interesting new research that suggests 3-D designs could dramatically increase the solar power generated from a given area.

This innovative design, which you can see detailed below, consists of building cubes or towers, according to MIT, that extend the solar cells upward in 3-D configurations. The MIT researchers said the results from these structures show “power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat panels with the same base area.”

image via MIT

While 3-D arrangements of solar cells aren’t entirely new, the MIT researchers say their approach, which is detailed in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, is unique because it “is the first to approach the problem with a systematic and predictive analysis.”

Both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules were said to have been done in this study, with the biggest power boosts found “in locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days.” The reason for this? It’s because these 3-D structures’ vertical surfaces “can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon.”

One challenge in seeing quick, widespread adoption of these 3-D solar designs might be cost; MIT noted that the cost of energy generated using their design exceeds that of ordinary flat panels. The researchers believe, however, that this expense could be balanced somewhat by factors such as a much higher energy output for a given footprint and more uniform power output over the course of a day, seasons of the year and “in the face of blockage from clouds or shadows.”

Researchers, who up to this point have modeled individual 3-D modules, said they next plan to study how a collection of these solar towers might work together. While one such tower could be installed in a parking lot to power a charging station for electric vehicles, a group of towers could possibly be used in larger-scale applications, such as solar farms, with a fraction of the footprint of ones being built today, once potential development issues are addressed.

“I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics,” says the paper’s senior author, Jeffrey Grossman, an associate professor of power engineering at MIT, in a statement.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.


  • Reply March 27, 2012


    In other news, a vertical stack of AA batteries will output 2-20 times the power of a single battery with the same base area.
    And it doesn’t take an MIT researcher to figure out how a collection of these might work together: in mornings, evenings and winters, the towers closer to the sun will shadow the ones further from the sun, cancelling out the benefit.

    • Reply March 28, 2012


      So this is assuming they haven’t factored those details into their design right? because MIT uses all their time and budget in figuring out how to efficiently develop better snacks… Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups.

    • Reply March 28, 2012


      W/E:  I hope you are not serious.  If you are implying they did not consider those things and more in their design, you don’t know much about MIT or any college reserach.

      • Reply April 2, 2012

        Matthew Gerlach

        They state pretty much the same thing in this article comparing power output to footprint instead of actual solar cell area.  If they were being honest they would state the gain in power output vs square inches of cells used.

  • Reply March 30, 2012


    Further evidence that Solar will likely reach parity with coal by the end of the decade (according to MIT researchers):

  • Reply April 1, 2012


    As the NREL and even MIT point out, positive ROIs on PV remain elusive – short of government subsidies – while the ROI on energy conservation is actually increasing.  With single piece molded corner panels and an interlocking cam-mechanism, Eco-Panels ( manufactures the most advanced structural insulated panelized building system on the market today.

  • Reply April 1, 2012


    ah ah! its about time..!! we stop relying on 1970 clean energy designs..that is 40 years ago!!..Come on we’re in the new century 2000..and the second decade of the new century..we should be advancing the older stuff..cREATing…to newer levels..diverse shapes, etc!!…not just  asking for more money for 1970 first run designs ..1970 wind towers (for example) that we know are not that efficient and just making them Bigger!!…..

  • Reply April 2, 2012


    The 1st house I built in 1978 was a passive solar, over-insulated ski chalet.  At that time I looked at a high efficiency solar water heater, but it wasn’t cost effective.  PV was almost unknown.  Now we have lots of PV available, but other than that, little has changed after 34 years.  Even here in Palm Springs, solar is not cost effective.

    • Reply April 25, 2012


      Solar panels add to the value of a house when sold: grand is a nice number your house will appreciate, bob, that you can figure in, right off the top of the purchase price/installation.  This in effect, halves my effective price.    Did you also figure this into your ‘not cost effective’ formula?  Isn’t the low desert of California one of the best places for solar in the entire world?    My solar panels yield about the same amount of electricity I use, and my payments are about as much as my electric bill was, pre-solar panels.   And I didn’t put any money down on the solar panel purchase.   My electricity is free at my house, once my payments end in 17 years(hence the appreciation).  And I’m not coming out of pocket.  And my electric car is powered by the sun, rather than money coming out of my wallet, like yours bob, and heading straight out of the country to the Saudi’s, or the Canadians, or the Nigerians, or the Venezuelans.    Much has changed, since 1978, bob.

  • Reply May 22, 2012

    Bren Danger Schenk

    This is a good step, but they need to be cost effective for clean energy to be a viable option.

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