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An ancient Japanese art is transforming solar power

Aaron Lamoureux | University of Michigan

Solar power is becoming an increasingly significant part of our planet's energy mix.

According to the International Energy Agency, by 2050 the sun could become the world's biggest source of electricity.

At the University of Michigan a team of experts has come up with a solar cell concept -- using an ancient Japanese craft -- that they say can track the sun in a highly effective way.

Using kirigami – a type of Japanese paper art similar to origami – the team, which includes engineers and an artist, have developed what the university describes as, "an array of small solar cells that can tilt within a larger panel." It is this ability to tilt that enables the cells to follow the sun's rays.

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"I have done research in the area of solar cells previously and was aware of the different problems there, including the need to do solar tracking more effectively," Max Shtein, associate professor of materials science and engineering at the university, told CNBC over email.

Shtein added that he had been thinking "for some time" about miniaturizing structures and mechanisms that are currently being used on a bigger scale. After talking with artist Matthew Shlian, who presented him with new paper forms he'd been working with, Shtein said he saw "a connection."

"The design in its current form relies on solar cells being distributed over a large sheet," he said.

Shtein went on to explain that these cells can be segmented and mounted or bonded to a flexible substrate – an underlying layer – or can be flexible themselves.

"The sheet itself has parallel cuts made in it, with some offset between the neighbouring rows of cuts," Shtein added.

"When stretched, the entire structure deforms to make individual elements of the surface tilt in a way that's very uniform throughout the sheet, and with a tilt angle that's proportional to how much you stretch it. That's where the control comes from."

In terms of efficiency, Shtein told CNBC that, "On the basis of any given surface area of semiconductor material used," his team's design could capture more than 35 percent electricity over the course of "a typical day, compared to a design where the photovoltaic is stationary."

One of the main questions surrounding the design is ensuring reliability, which could involve more testing or structural modification, or what Shtein described as "a deeper look at the materials and structures involved."

In a press release at the beginning of September, the University said it was in the process of seeking patent protection for the intellectual property as well as "seeking commercialization partners to help bring the technology to market."