If recent work done by a joint Stanford-Korean team bears fruit, we may see a new generation of flexible, easy-to-install solar panels soon. The team, led by Hanyang University researcher Dong Rip Kim of that school's Department of Mechanical Engineering, has developed a way to laminate high-efficiency thin-film solar cells onto flexible surfaces with an adhesive backing -- offering the prospect of cheap "peel-and-stick" solar cells.
Most PV cells are created by applying a photovoltaic semiconducting layer to a relatively heavy substrate, usually glass or another form of silicon dioxide. Kim's team bonded an amorphous silicon photovoltaic layer to a thin metal layer atop the usual silicon wafer, which allowed them to peel the photovoltaic layer off the metal without damaging its efficiency. The underlying silicon wafer can be reused, offering significant savings in production costs once the process is commercialized.
The work was done in collaboration with a Stanford University team headed up by Professor Xiaolin Zheng.
According to an article describing the work on Hanyang University's website,
[A]s the peeled-off TFSCs [thin-film solar cells] from the Si wafer are thin, light-weight, and flexible, it can be attached onto any form or shape of surface like a sticker. Although others have successfully fabricated TFSCs on flexible substrates to realize the flexible solar cells, many efforts have been driven to modify the existing processes for solar cell fabrication, due to the rubber-like properties of the flexible substrates. Importantly, Kim and his colleagues made the light-weight flexible solar cells without modifying any existing fabrication processes, and their performance was maintained even after the transfer. Kim states that their novel technology is not limited to the solar cells only. Numerous other appliances like flexible displays can adopt his method.
Of course, promising results in the lab don't always pan out in the real world. But if Kim's work holds up, we can look forward to even cheaper photovoltaic cells that can be applied in plenty of places where currently available PV panels aren't practical -- for example, on large flat roofs that weren't built with heavy solar mounting brackets in mind.