Kirigami-inspired solar cells can track the sun without motors

Researchers at the University of Michigan announced on Wednesday that they have developed a method of keeping solar cells turned toward the sun without the need for heavy and energy-hungry motors. Their method is based on the Japanese art of Kirigami -- like origami but with cuts in addition to folds. The team's panel is printed on a flexible kapton substrate which has dash-like cuts running across its surface. When stretched, the panel forms a mesh with each section twisting slightly. The degree of twist, which will allow the panel to follow the path of the sun, depends on how much the panel is stretched. "The design takes what a large tracking solar panel does and condenses it into something that is essentially flat," Aaron Lamoureux, lead author on the paper published in Nature Communications, said in a release.

The team found that these panels to be nearly as effective as conventional sun-tracking solar panels. The new panels are 36 percent more efficient that stationary panels compared to 40 percent for traditional motorized units. Of course these new panels are also a tenth of the weight of the trackers, making them ideal for home installation. "We think it has significant potential, and we're actively pursuing realistic applications," Lamoureux continued. "It could ultimately reduce the cost of solar electricity."

This is not the first use of kirigami in an industrial application, mind you. Arizona State recently unveiled a stretchable battery based on the folding and cutting technique. Similarly, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has employed origami to build a foldable UAV; a team from Hiroshima University have created an origami bridge that unfolds like an accordion; and MIT even built a self-folding drone capable of examining your insides.