Developed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology, the new material is formed with micron-sized silicon wires, rather than brittle wafers. Encased in a flexible polymer, the wires can be rolled or bent.
Researchers hope to use the material in thin, light, flexible solar cells that can be used in clothing and other nontraditional applications. For now, however, it promises cheaper solar panels that are easier to install.
The Caltech scientists aren't the only ones pursuing flexible and thin solar cells, which are known for being less efficient than their stiff silicon counterparts. The difference is that Caltech's material is as efficient (15 to 20 percent) as traditional panels -- yet uses one-hundredth as much silicon.
Scientists at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign are also working on flexible, inorganic solar panels that are "flexible enough to be rolled around a pencil and transparent enough to be used to tint windows on buildings or cars," according to a Reuters report.
Industrial giant Siemens has partnered with semiconductor startup Semprius to develop large systems for utility-scale power generation.
The work of the Caltech researchers -- which include professors Harry Atwater and Nathan Lewis and graduate student Michael Kelzenberg -- was published in the journal Nature Materials.