Art Inspires Lighter, Simpler Sun-Chasing Solar Panels

Leaving bulky and motorized sun trackers behind, researchers at the University of Michigan come up with a newer, more convenient and less cumbersome way to get solar cells to bask in the sun while chasing sunlight.

A motorized sun-tracker in Spain.
A motorized sun-tracker in Spain.

The researchers’ findings are available in an openly available paper titled ‘Dynamic kirigami structures for integrated solar tracking’, here, as reported by Phys.

Taking inspiration from Kirigami, the ancient Japanese art of paper cutting, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan have developed unique solar cells that capture up to 40 percent more energy, much like the conventional motorized tracker-aided cells of today.

However, in stark contrast to the big and bulky trackers that are not viable along certain surfaces, the newly developed cells are just like the solar cells of today, without the need for chunky add-ons.

Max Shtein, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and a corresponding author of the paper, explains:

The beauty of our design is, from the standpoint of the person who’s putting this panel up, nothing would really change. But inside, it would be doing something remarkable on a tiny scale: the solar cell would split into tiny segments that would follow the position of the sun in unison.

Art Spurs a Novel Idea

The U.S. Department of Energy notes that 85 percent of all solar panel installations in the country are on residential rooftops. With this in mind, rooftops would require substantial reinforcing to support the weight of the sun-tracking systems of today.

A team of engineers, researchers, and an artist came together to develop an array of small solar cells contained within a larger panel, with the ability to tilt inside. This additional ‘tilt’ helps keep their surfaces perpendicular or flat to the sun’s rays, extending the time the sun ‘sees’ the panel.

Fundamentally, when ordinary panels are at an angle, they are smaller to the sun’s rays.

Then came the breakthrough – thanks to the combined efforts of the group of solar researchers and the artist. They designed an array that tilts and open up further, spreading apart to the sun’s rays at lower angles, thereby raising the area of the panels ‘seen’ by the sun to soak up more sunlight.

“The design takes what a large tracking solar panel does and condenses it into something that is essentially flat,” contends Aaron Lamoureux, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering and first author on the paper in the journal – Nature Communications.

Sculpting the Innovative Design

The inspiration behind the design came when the team of engineers worked with Matthew Shlian, a paper artist and a lecturer at the U-M School of Art and Design. While exploring patterns for the design, they used a carbon-dioxide laser to carve out designs in Kapton, a space-grade plastic.

Despite tinkering with complex designs, the trio found that the simplest pattern worked best. Cuts resembling rows of dashes helped the plastic to be pulled apart into a more basic mesh.

The most efficient solar-tracking design proved to be impossible because of the need for the solar cells to be extremely long and narrow. The optimized and more feasible end design produced 36 percent more energy in tracking the sun, compared to a stationary panel.

While conventional trackers that are in use today produce around 40 percent more energy than a stationary panel, they are bulky and “prone to catching the wind and ten or more times heavier”, noted Shtein.

“We think it has significant potential, and we’re actively pursuing realistic applications,” Shtein added.

It could ultimately reduce the cost of solar electricity.

Images from Wikipedia and Shutterstock.

Samburaj is the contributing editor at Hacked and keeps tabs on science, technology and cyber security.