Scientists developed an incredibly thin and flexible photovoltaic cell. It's so lightweight that it can lay on top of a soap bubble without popping it.

This lightweight solar cell brings solar energy to a whole new level. At only one-fifth the thickness of human hair, it can be placed anywhere – clothing, helium balloons, smartphones and many more.

The new thin and lightweight solar cells are so light they can go unnoticed and can easily be added to existing structures, said Vladimir Bulović. He is a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where scientists have also started developing ultra-efficient solar cells last year.

The new solar cell's versatility makes the invention exciting. The all-in-one process is the key to its development, which includes the protective coating, the supporting substrate and the solar cell itself.

They utilized vapor deposition techniques to grow the cell and substrate together. This is where pressure, heat and chemical reactions work to create a coating for a certain material.

Growing the substrate and the cell together help protect the support system from contaminants such as dust. The team used parylene, which is a flexible polymer, as both substrate and coating. For the light-absorbing main layer, the researchers used dibutyl phthalate or DBP, which is an organic material.

The researchers said it's the techniques used – and not the materials – that makes the new solar cell a substantial breakthrough in solar cell manufacturing. The ultra-thin and lightweight solar cell can effectively convert light into energy just like other solar cells.

"The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device," said Bulović. 

The new solar cells can be highly effective in space explorations or at high altitude where weight is crucial. However, mass producing these lightweight solar cells will take some time.

Commercial use for the new lightweight solar cell seems uncertain for now, at least until the researchers can find a way to manufacture them fast enough, but the technology holds many long-term potentials in the solar power industry.

The study was published in the journal Organic Electronics.

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