Dragon SCALEs: Printable, Flexible, Cheap Solar Glitter
Glitter gets everywhere — whether one thinks this is wonderful or horrendous, spreading highly efficient solar cells with the flexibility and covering power of glitter is definitely an innovative idea. This idea is now being brought to life through a partnership between Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) and mPower Technology, founded by former Sandia scientist Murat Okandan. Okandan, who participated in the development of these microsolar cells, was kind enough to offer some firsthand insights into this vibrant new tech.
Dragon SCALEs, AKA solar glitter, is comprised of miniature and flexible solar cells, which can be integrated into any shape or size of object. The cells are produced using Sandia’s Microsystems-Enabled Photovoltaics (MEPV) technology, which uses microfabrication and microdesign techniques to create the glitter-sized photovoltaic (PV) cells. Sandia explains that the wee cells are added to a solution comparable to printing ink and printed onto an affordable substrate. The substrate material focuses light onto the cells with embedded contacts and microlenses. The microprocesses used to create the solar glitter are also common to liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), semiconductors and other microsystems industries.
As well as being applicable to any shape or size of object, the solar cells are cheaper to create and easier to install than conventional solar panels. They are extremely thin and can be as tiny as 14 microns thick and 250 microns wide. This trait both reduces the cost of materials and enhances the cells’ performance.
mPower Technology’s signed a licensing agreement with Sandia for the solar glitter and the Dragon SCALEs are the company’s primary current focus. CEO and CTO Okandan says that during the initial six-year development of the cells at Sandia, “a wide range of possible solar device and system configurations were evaluated.” Efficiency and cost optimization were a key focus for the researchers during this period.
“Now in the commercialization phase, the challenge is bringing an innovative and disruptive advancement to a truly massive scale, to help in accelerating the ongoing and critical transformation of our energy infrastructure,” Okandan states.
Silicon, which is commonly used in the production of solar cells, will crack and break if it bends. The new solar glitter maintains the efficiency of typical solar cells but does not shatter like silicon when bent. Treehugger shares that the tiny cells can be folded up for use as portable energy generators — in other words, sunshine in your pocket.
“Everything needs power first,” says Okandan when describing the incredibly wide range of potential applications for the solar glitter. His list of these applications includes “biomedical, such as implanted and patient worn devices, aerospace, including satellites and drones, consumer electronics, architectural integration and very fast, very large-scale deployment of solar power.” Sensors, vehicles, tents and specialized clothing are other possible uses. For example, people spending extended periods outdoors such as military personnel or hikers could potentially charge their phones or other devices with their solar glitter-embedded garb or shelter.
“Energy is the core enabling resource for all human activity,” Okandan reminds us. He continues:
Renewable energy, safe, secure, abundant, affordable and sustainable energy, is what is necessary for the next phase of our existence on this planet. There is a transformation happening in the way we generate, distribute and use energy and we aim to capitalize on and accelerate that transformation.
Solar power is already becoming more ubiquitous and affordable. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in late 2016 that solar is beginning to out-compete coal, natural gas and wind as the world’s cheapest form of electricity. These new miniature and versatile solar cells may push the widespread use of solar even further; Okandan says they “have the potential to be one of the advancements that supports accelerated deployment of solar.” The ultimate outcome of this solar cell innovation would be “seeing everyone who needs access to energy having all their energy needs met,” he adds.
Sandia is a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy and partnered with the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida, Endicott Interconnect Technologies, International Micro Industries, EMCORE, Universal Instruments and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the development of the Dragon SCALEs solar glitter. Keep up with the latest innovations from Sandia’s labs on Facebook and Twitter.
And, if anyone has a brilliant idea for how to use these incredible mini-solar cells that isn’t listed here, they needn’t despair — the mPower Technology site encourages visitors to contact them with unique design requests for solar glitter applications.