If you’ve ever folded a piece of paper, cut an intricate design, and unfolded it into a snowflake, you are already familiar with the latest technological advances in solar energy.
Using the Japanese art of kirigami, researchers at the University of Michigan have created lattice-like strips of solar cells that can stretch to follow the sun throughout the day, collecting up to 30 percent more solar energy than conventional panels.
The concept is born from the problem of traditional solar panels being static, while the sun in the sky moves overhead throughout the day, meaning solar panels aren’t able to capture as much energy as they theoretically could. Kirigami strips take care of this problem by being able to stretch and follow the contours of the sun’s path. The design proposed would shelter the delicate gallium arsenide strips between two surfaces, much like triple-paned windows, and the panels themselves would need to be larger than traditional ones, to accommodate the stretch.
While the idea has received much praise, it also comes with questions. How long would the thin strips be able to take daily stretching before they break down and would this be cost-effective in the long run? What about extreme temperatures? The developers are optimistic about future applications and working out the kinks. For instance, the strips could first be used on airborne devices, seeing as they are much more lightweight than other solar energy systems. It goes to show that the simplest design can be both most elegant and most useful.