Brit Liggett

Solar Origami: MIT Working on Super Efficient Folded Solar Panels

by , 04/08/10

solar panels, origami, mit, massachusetts, jeffrey grossman, solar power, folded solar panels, alternative energy, renewable energy

Standard flat solar panels are only optimized to capture sunlight at one point of the sun’s trajectory — otherwise they need automated tracking systems to follow the sun. MIT power engineering professor Jeffrey Grossman has found an artful answer to this planar problem — the ancient art of origami! Grossman found that folded solar cell systems could produce constant power throughout the day and didn’t need tracking. His new designs are up to two and a half times more efficient per comparative length and width than traditional flat arrays.

Grossman was inspired by the way that trees spread their leaves in all directions to maximize their exposure to the sun. He worked with MIT graduate student Marco Bernardi to create a computer program that mimics the process of evolution. The computer program would randomize patterns of exposed surfaces and then choose the most efficient one to start the next generation — how Darwinian.

What resulted were gorgeous sun-capturing shapes that resemble origami. In some structures the surfaces also reflect upon each other, intensifying the sunlight and increasing energy gain. Grossman noticed that the larger the shapes, the more effective the panels were — sometimes they reached 120 KWh per day when a traditional panel would get 50 KWh. He is continuing his research to find the most effective folding patterns and has teamed up with Professors Vladimir Bulović and David Perreault of EECS to create a prototype system.

+ MIT

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11 Comments

  1. Artist Floats a Paper B... November 9, 2010 at 10:37 am

    [...] vessel was made entirely of paper and folded to resemble an origami hat — origami boats, origami solar panels, what will they think of next? He asked passersby to lend a hand in the making of the vessel once [...]

  2. Lab Creates 3 Layered S... June 30, 2010 at 9:29 am

    [...] are scrambling to find a way to increase that efficiency — using mirrors and even the shaping them like origami. Well, RoseStreet Labs might just have a solution – they’ve created a thin film solar [...]

  3. miket0 June 15, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    are they going to put a flat sheet over these to make these cleanable? if they do how would they conduct heat from all that volume to stay cool?

  4. thetopseo11 June 2, 2010 at 2:09 am

    Really it is great start and I think if it will be succeeded so new history come in to existence…Nice Post and informative as well as usable too.

  5. brickZA April 12, 2010 at 4:05 am

    Reed Phillips:

    Your info about energy payback time is a bit outdated. For current technologies the payback time is between 1 and 4 years, see e.g.

    http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy04osti/35489.pdf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell#Solar_cells_and_energy_payback
    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/114262504/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

  6. atokad33 April 11, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    REED PHILLIPS: it is quite possible that they are utilizing the newest tech because there is a company out in Califorina called Nanosolar that has found a way t create solar panels without any silicon at all… this new tech is also allowing them to prototype a solar panel that is flexible which seems to match up with the article

  7. split April 9, 2010 at 11:33 am

    I designed a house that does this, as per Tom Trottler’s comment.

  8. HealthySkeptic April 9, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Seems like a great idea – until you factor in the extra cost of the solar panels to cover all of those surfaces. So, if the problem is limited surface area (small roof) and not the cost of installation – this is a winner. I’m guessing that there is a further search (optimization) that could factor in cost as well as kwh per day and come up with various solutions that trade off the two (i.e., with different weightings).

  9. Reed Phillips April 9, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Agree, the efficiency of a photovoltaic only affects the cross-sectional area of the cell to the photon source. As the sun transit’s the sky, this cell would only utilize the part of the cell that is exposed, while allowing a significant area of its surface are to be “shaded”. The cell can only utilize the photons that cross its surface. I think a device that focused photons on a panel at 90 degrees would be much more efficient.
    I wonder if this article is leaving out an important point. Current efficiencies on photovoltaic cells are not that great. The energy (coal fire, oil, nuclear, etc) required to melt the silicon and form the cell is never recaptured during the usable lifespan of a typical cell (10-15 years at under 15% efficiency). If this project is claiming a 2.5 times higher efficiency, I wonder if they are using an advanced photovoltaic (germanium, organic, etc.).

  10. tOM Trottier April 8, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Seems to me that this would only work because more sunlite is reflected at oblique angles. Why not bury a small solar panel inside a reflective structure that reflects all sunlite downwards at closer to 90 degrees. Leave gaps for water to drain out and use rain or spraying to clean.

  11. Brad Powell April 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Great start! How about a follow on project? Shape a solar panel like a evergreen tree? The trunk is big enough for battery storage. It could be used to power street lights. And the tree design is already optimized for collecting light. If nothing else a self contained lighted Christmas tree could be powered.

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