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.

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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.