No, seriously, you can print a photovoltaic cell on a piece of paper? Incredible as it sounds, that’s exactly what a team of researchers at MIT has pulled off, offering the possibility of a very cheap and easy way to produce solar cells for disposable consumer goods, wall or window coverings and other applications.

According to the university, this new technique of printing cells on ordinary, uncoated paper “represents a major departure from the systems used until now to create most solar cells, which require exposing the substrates to potentially damaging conditions, either in the form of liquids or high temperatures.” Vapors instead of liquids are the key to the new process, keeping temperatures at a much lower level – less than 120 degrees Celsius. “These ‘gentle’ conditions,” the university said, “make it possible to use ordinary untreated paper, cloth or plastic as the substrate on which the solar cells can be printed.”

solar cells printed on paper, MIT
image via MIT

The new technology for creating solar power was developed by a team of chemical engineers and electrical engineers at MIT. Right now the process, which deposits five layers of material onto the same sheet of paper in successive passes, puts out a solar cell with just 1 percent efficiency. But the researchers say they’re working to boost that figure and, anyway, it’s already “good enough to power a small electric gizmo.”

And two other attributes also make the solar-on-paper cells especially viable: They function “even when folded up into a paper airplane,” the researchers said, and have a low sensitivity to humidity.

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