A Moment of Science

Leaves Inspire Better Solar Panels

While solar panels typically have smooth surfaces, leaves have tiny wrinkles and folds that allow for maximum light absorption.

leaves in a green forest

Photo: Wendell (Flickr)

Nature is a great inspiration source for science.

What do leaves and solar panels have in common?

Both absorb sunlight and turn it into energy. But while solar panels typically have smooth surfaces, leaves have tiny wrinkles and folds that allow for maximum light absorption.

Nature And Engineering

Recently, scientists took a cue from nature and engineered plastic solar panels with leaf like surfaces. Most flat surfaced solar panels absorb some light and turn about eighteen percent of it into electricity. Panels with ridged surfaces can absorb more light by channeling light waves, thereby significantly increasing their efficiency at converting light into electricity.

Besides making panels more efficient, ridged and wrinkled surfaces could allow solar panels to be made out of bendable plastic instead of silicon. Silicon is naturally better at absorbing light than plastic, but it’s also more expensive and more brittle. Flexible plastic is cheaper and more durable but typically not as good at absorbing light. But with leaf like surfaces, solar panels made from bendable plastic may be able to absorb light just as effectively, if not more so, than regular panels.

Surface Texture

Another benefit of the wrinkled surface technique is that it’s especially useful for increasing absorption at the red end of the light spectrum, which has the longest wavelengths. Conventional solar panels typically absorb very little of red and infrared light. But the folding technique increased absorption of this light by nearly 600 percent.

Plastic, leaf like solar panels are not yet ready for widespread use. But they could one day help revolutionize the solar industry by allowing for thin, flexible panels used on windows, clothing, and most flat surfaces.

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