Military research leads to a lot of cool technological advancements that can benefit the public as much as the troops. United States Army researchers have been working on improved solar technology, and they have developed a tiny photovoltaic solar cell that is substantially smaller and more cost effective than any other solar cell on the market. The new design has won the Army a patent, and the inventors are calling it a “breakthrough” in clean energy.

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At the heart of advancements in solar power technology is the drive to make solar cells smaller, lighter, and more efficient. It’s already possible to print paper-thin solar cells, but the Army’s latest patent is for solar cells just a fraction of that thickness, which is tough to imagine. A piece of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick, while the Army’s new solar cells are made from layers of silver and gold semiconductors that result in “a combined thickness of only a few hundred nanometers,” according to Dr. Michael Scalora, a research physicist at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), who is the co-inventor of the new technology.

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In addition to being 1,000 times slimmer, the new solar cells are less expensive to manufacture, more durable, and more robust than current solar cell technology. “Low-cost, compact, flexible and efficient solar cells are destined to impact all sorts of Department of Defense applications, as lightweight solar panels will eventually power all kinds of equipment, particularly in remote, inaccessible areas,” Scalora said.

Although the Army has won the patent rights for the concept, research is still ongoing at AMRDEC in Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, conducted by Scalora and his co-inventors Maria Antonietta Vincenti, Neset Akozbek, and Domenico de Ceglia. What’s clear is that this kind of advancement could have a widespread impact on the solar power industry, outside of its military applications.

Via Treehugger

Images via Jeremy Levine/Flickr and U.S. Army