Solar energy is hot right now, even though solar arrays are cumbersome, costly, and—worst of all—not particularly efficient. But in a lab in the Department of Chemistry, Trisha Andrew is developing solar cells made from a surprisingly common, even inexpensive substance: a dye used to make the color blue.
The same property that gives the dye’s molecules their intense color also lets them conduct electricity. And instead of requiring heavy glass-based solar panels and silver conductors, the densely pigmented dye can be woven with metallic threads and laid down in films thinner than a human hair.
Andrew and her team can create lightweight, flexible, and even disposable solar cells on a medium as fine as tracing paper, making solar energy more efficient and affordable than ever before.
The technology coming out of Andrew’s lab could not only power everything from rooftop solar arrays to cell phone chargers, but be set up, taken down, or brought to a new location as easily as moving a table lamp from one room to another. This creates new opportunities for harnessing energy in developing nations, for helping emergency response teams working away from the grid, and for handling any situation where there is a need for quickly and cheaply gaining access to electrical power.