Flexible solar panels are ultra-thin silicon wafers designed to capture solar energy. Unlike conventional solar panels that are heavy and bulky, flexible solar panels are only a few micrometers in thickness.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed the Flexible Solar Cell Research wherein the active part of the thin-film cells (usually made out of glass for enhancing the performance) accumulates the solar power and produces electricity. Flexible solar cells are made by layering photovoltaic material on a ‘base,’ that is a substrate of high-grade plastic or glass. These cells are way thinner and much more flexible than a conventional mono or polycrystalline solar panel. The layered configuration of these ultra-thin solar cells allows for a more compact design to minimize the energy loss when overshadowed by clouds.
At present, the two most common technologies used in making flexible solar panels are Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) and Amorphous Silicon (a-Si). However, researchers at Stanford University, supervised by Xiaolin Zheng, have developed a technology to print solar cells – apply the active material of the solar cell onto the surface of ordinary things like a sheet of paper or plastic and the roof of a car. This, they hope, will open new possibilities for harnessing solar energy.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Flexible Solar Panels
The greatest advantage of flexible solar cells is their agility factor. They are lightweight and can easily fit into spaces where conventional solar panels cannot. For instance, if your house fails the roof test for the installation of solar shingles or panels owing to structural issues, you can always opt for ultra-thin flexible solar cells.
Another advantage of flexible solar panels is that they can be easily attached to unusual places such as laptops, mobile phones, cameras, to name a few. A great example of this is the solar roof of Fisker Karma where the flexible solar panel is integrated perfectly to align with the curved roof of the car.
The cost of installing flexible solar panels is much less compared to regular solar panels since they require less labor and effort to be installed and being lightweight, they can be easily carried.
However, flexible solar panels do have certain limitations. They are not suitable for large-scale solar projects that require sturdy and more reliable solar panels. The efficiency of these flexible solar panels ranges between 11-13% which is much less compared to the effectiveness of monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels that have the efficiency range between 14-17%.
In future, we can hope that innovations and advances in technology will allow for the development of more efficient, flexible solar panels.