Photo by Aaron Lamoureux
Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that solar panels perform more efficiently when cut into strips using a method inspired by kirigami, a variation of origami in which paper designs are cut and folded.
Most solar panels in the world are installed at fixed angles. This makes it impossible for them to track the sun across the sky during the day for greater efficiency. As reported by the MIT Technology Review, solar panels that track the sun are 20 to 40 percent more efficient than their stationary counterparts, but they are also more complex and expensive to construct and install.
The researchers cut solar panels using kirigami techniques, which allowed the panels to track the sun by flexing, without actually tilting or rotating on their mounts. Flexible solar panels were sliced into loosely connected strips. When stretching force was applied to opposite corners of the solar panel, these cuts opened up and forced the surface of the panels to transition from a horizontal orientation to a near vertical one.
This motion provides an effective method by which the panels can track the sun without moving on their bases. The strips do not cast shadows on neighboring strips, and the waviness created by the morphing action does not compromise the strips’ ability to collect solar energy. This approach allows panels to generate more electricity using the same amount of semiconducting material, thus rendering them competitive with traditional tracking systems, while remaining simpler and less expensive.
The researchers stress that their current product, made of gallium arsenide, is a proof-of-principle prototype only, and that development of a commercially viable product will require more work. The cells will require encasement for protection against the elements, and electric motors will be required to facilitate the stretching motion.