Materials

Fern-Like Sheets of Graphene Could Boost Solar Panel Efficiency

Flexible, thin-film solar could be used almost anywhere to generate power, from building windows to car panels, smart phones to smart watches.

The breakthrough electrode prototype (right) can be combined with a solar cell (left) for on-chip energy harvesting and storage. | RMIT University
The breakthrough electrode prototype (right) can be combined with a solar cell (left) for on-chip energy harvesting and storage. | RMIT University

A superconducting electrode modeled on the veins of a fern can help solar cells store more of the electricity they produce, possibly solving a longstanding problem with harnessing the sun’s power, researchers in Australia say.

The laser-etched electrode boosted the storage capacity of a solar cell 30-fold, according to findings published in the journal Scientific Reports. It’s a step toward producing solar cells on a thin film of material, making them more useful for powering personal electronics as well as larger-scale applications, said Litty Thekkekara, a physicist and Ph.D. candidate at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

“Flexible, thin-film solar could be used almost anywhere you can imagine, from building windows to car panels, smart phones to smart watches,” Thekkekara said in a statement announcing the findings. “We would no longer need batteries to charge our phones or charging stations for our hybrid cars.”

To maximize its capacity, Thekkekara and colleague Min Gu looked to another solar-powered item: The leaves of the western swordfern, a North American plant. 

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The veins that lace the leaves of the fern are a fractal — a repeating geometric pattern like a snowflake that fills space efficiently. By inscribing that pattern onto graphene -— highly conductive sheet of carbon atoms with a strong ability to conduct electricity — they increased the surface area available for conducting and storing power.

Graphene has been the subject of extensive research since its discovery in 2004, and previous studies have shown that laser-inscribed fractals can enhance its performance.

The electrode Gu and Thekkekara produced is meant to be combined with a supercapacitor, which stores and discharges power at a higher rate than ordinary batteries. But supercapacitors haven’t been able to store enough power on their own to be much help in storing the power solar cells produce, said Gu, the head of research innovation and entrepreneurship at RMIT.

“Capacity-boosted supercapacitors would offer both long-term reliability and quick-burst energy release, for when someone wants to use solar energy on a cloudy day, for example — making them ideal alternatives for solar power storage,” Gu said.

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