3D solar cells could increase energy output twenty-fold

Researchers believe they have found a way to increase the energy generated through solar, and it doesn’t just involve slapping a few more panels on the roof.

A team at MIT say that you would be better off building 3D cubes or towers constructed from photovoltaic panels, rather than laying them flat on a building.

While the thought of a giant PV cube might look out of place in your average British garden, the MIT engineers think that the countries with cloudier weather and real winters would benefit the most.

For those who don’t mind the strange looks from neighbours, installing a solar structure could mean an increased output from double to 20 times that of a fixed flat panel with the same base area.

While plenty of time and resources go into improving cell efficiencies, there is little investigation into the best way of arranging the cells. Using computer modelling algorithms the team was able to devise a number of shapes that were tested with analytics software to simulate weather conditions and so forth.

Some structures were also tested on MIT’s lab roof to see if the computer had got its predictions right.

They found that while creating a solar structure which would be more at home in the Tate Modern would not be cheap, it was able to give a much more predictable uniform energy output. This is because a vertical 3D structure is able to make much better use of sunlight when the sun is close to the horizon.

Complex shapes were the best, such as a cube with an inwards dimple, so it doesn’t seem like they would be particularly easy to manufacture.  However, computer aided design can be used to simplify shapes for only a small loss in the energy produced.

While the cost might sound prohibitive, the researchers point out that PV panel prices have been dropping substantially over the past decade.

The team thinks that the solar industry is ready for innovation.  Whether this means that it is ready for the accordion-shaped fold out towers just yet is another question. If the researchers are right, though, there are plenty of benefits – such as being constructed in a car park to provide fuel for electric cars.