The sheet of paper looks like any other document that might have just come spitting out of an office printer, with an array of colored rectangles printed over much of its surface. But then a researcher picks it up, clips a couple of wires to one end, and shines a light on the paper. Instantly an LCD clock display at the other end of the wires starts to display the time. Almost as cheaply and easily as printing a photo on your inkjet, an inexpensive, simple solar cell has been created on that flimsy sheet, formed from special “inks” deposited on the paper. You can even fold it up to slip into a pocket, then unfold it and watch it generating electricity again in the sunlight.

Printable Solar Cells - Paper Solar Cell Panels - Foldable Solar SheetsThe new technology, developed by a team of researchers at MIT. The technique 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. The new printing process uses vapors, not liquids, and temperatures less than 120 degrees Celsius. These “gentle” conditions make it possible to use ordinary untreated paper, cloth or plastic as the substrate on which the solar cells can be printed.

It is, to be sure, a bit more complex than just printing out a term paper. In order to create an array of photovoltaic cells on the paper, five layers of material need to be deposited onto the same sheet of paper in successive passes, using a mask (also made of paper) to form the patterns of cells on the surface. And the process has to take place in a vacuum chamber.

In today’s conventional solar cells, the costs of the inactive components — the substrate (usually glass) that supports the active photovoltaic material, the structures to support that substrate, and the installation costs — are typically greater than the cost of the active films of the cells themselves, sometimes twice as much. Being able to print solar cells directly onto inexpensive, easily available materials such as paper or cloth, and then easily fasten that paper to a wall for support, could ultimately make it possible to drastically reduce the costs of solar installations. For example, paper solar cells could be made into window shades or wallpaper — and paper costs one-thousandth as much as glass for a given area, the researchers say.

The basic process is essentially the same as the one used to make the silvery lining in your bag of potato chips: a vapor-deposition process that can be carried out inexpensively on a vast commercial scale. For outdoor uses, the researchers demonstrated that the paper could be coated with standard lamination materials, to protect it from the elements.

The resilient solar cells still function even when folded up into a paper airplane. MIT researchers also describe printing a solar cell on a sheet of PET plastic (a thinner version of the material used for soda bottles) and then folding and unfolding it 1,000 times, with no significant loss of performance.