By borrowing from kirigami, the ancient Japanese art of paper cutting, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed solar cells that can track the sun. Now, by borrowing from kirigami, the ancient Japanese art of paper cutting, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed solar cells that can have it both ways. A team of engineers and an artist developed an array of small solar cells that can tilt within a larger panel, keeping their surfaces more perpendicular to the sun's rays. Solar cell researchers think of tracking in terms of how much of a solar panel the sun can "see." When the panel is at an angle, it looks smaller. To explore patterns, the team of engineers worked with paper artist Matthew Shlian, a lecturer in the U-M School of Art and Design. The design with the very best solar-tracking promise was impossible to make at U-M because the solar cells would be very long and narrow. The optimized design is effective because it stretches easily, allowing a lot of tilt without losing much width.
The paper on this work is titled "Dynamic kirigami structures for integrated solar tracking." The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and NanoFlex Power Corporation. Construction is well underway for the Inspired Living At Sun City facility on 105 Commercial Center Drive in Sun City Center, behind the Minto Home Sales building.
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A flat plastic sheet backing the solar cells splits into wavy, connected ribbons when stretched.
By designing an array that tilts and spreads apart when the sun's rays are coming in at lower angles, they raise the effective area that is soaking up sunlight. Image credit: Aaron LamoureuxTo make the solar array, Kyusang Lee, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, built custom solar cells in the lab of Stephen Forrest, the Peter A. Scaling up to a feasible width, the cells became too long to fit into the chambers used to make the prototypes on campus, so the team is looking into other options.
According to the team's simulations of solar power generation during the summer solstice in Arizona, it is almost as good as a conventional single-axis tracker, offering a 36 percent improvement over a stationary panel. The university is pursuing patent protection for the intellectual property, and is seeking commercialization partners to help bring the technology to market.

The tilt of the cells depends on the stretching, a simple mechanism for tracking the sun across the sky. Lamoureux then made more precise patterns in Kapton, a space-grade plastic, using a carbon-dioxide laser. The interconnected strips of Kapton tilt in proportion to how much the mesh is stretched, to an accuracy of about one degree. Conventional trackers produce about 40 percent more energy than stationary panels under the same conditions, but they are bulky, prone to catching the wind and ten or more times heavier, Shtein said.
Shtein is also an associate professor of chemical engineering, art and design and macromolecular science and engineering. Well I get asked all the time to draw tattoos for people, so I figured why not make it a total package?
Image credit: Aaron LamoureuxANN ARBOR—Solar cells capture up to 40 percent more energy when they can track the sun across the sky, but conventional, motorized trackers are too heavy and bulky for pitched rooftops and vehicle surfaces.
Forrest is also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, material science and engineering and physics.
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