Solar technology has come a long way from the bulky, inefficient panels we’ve known for decades. Every month it seems we get news of a thinner, more efficient solar cell that’s under development. But even these have a limited range of application, involving mostly flat or cylindrical surfaces. Like every movie and flat screen television to hit the market these days, scientists in Germany wondered what would happen if solar panels were available in 3D too.
It may sound far-fetched, but it’s already becoming a reality. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin (Fraunhofer IZM) have developed a new flexible solar panel that can be wrapped around 3D surfaces, like the spherical crown of a ski helmet, for example.
Until now, only relatively small solar modules could be mounted on uneven surfaces. Mechanically flexible, foil-based solar cells are also unsuited to such applications, as they only bend in one direction (cylindrical) and are usually far less efficient than rigid solar cells.
Fraunhofer IZM solved these problems of durability and performance by developing extremely high quality, monocrystalline silicon solar cells that can be divided into tiny individual chips and adapted to a three-dimensional, curved shape. This unique “packaging” reduces risk of individual cells fracturing when subjected to sudden, concentrated mechanical stress. Also, by utilizing a redundant layout, users can be confident that the solar cells will keep operating smoothly even if an individual cell fails or is damaged.