Kirigami Paper-Cutting Art Inspires a Wild Solar Energy Idea

  • 2015-10-22
  • National Geographic

A new, cutting-edge concept for solar panels started with two tools: paper and scissors.

Inspired by the Japanese art of kirigami, researchers at the University of Michigan have created a lattice-like cell that can stretch like an accordion, allowing it to tilt along the sun's trajectory and capture more energy. They detail the idea in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The study tackles a basic problem with solar arrays: The sun moves; panels typically don't. That means energy is lost as the sun changes position, unless panels are mounted on mechanized bases that can tilt to follow the light throughout the day. Tracking systems can be expensive, and "there's no way to do it on rooftops," notes co-author Max Shtein, a University of Michigan engineer who teamed with artist Matt Shlian to hatch the design.

The kirigami cells are made of flexible, thin-film gallium arsenide strips that have been cut in a simple, two-dimensional pattern. When the cells are stretched, the pattern pops out and allows them to become three-dimensional, tracking the sun over a radius of about 120 degrees. The idea joins several others aimed at making solar more efficient and widespread, from transparent cells that could be used on windows to sticky ones that could be planted anywhere.