News | Jun 17, 2019

US Navy grinding out flexible solar cells, wants business to take over

Rigid solar panels like those pictured are difficult to deploy for mobile forces. And currently available, low-cost flexible solar cells produce little power. Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory are changing that.

Luke Nowakowski/DoD

A team at the Naval Research Laboratory has invented a technique to shave solar cells so thin they can bend and now the lab is looking for an industry partner to scale up production.

The research is part of the U.S. military’s effort to find affordable solar cell technologies that help reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and traditional batteries for powering and charging devices.

“We developed low-cost cells to expand the range of application that solar cells can be used for, including unmanned aerial vehicles, mobile solar markets, and other military applications,” said David Scheiman, co-inventor and electrical engineer at the Navy lab. “Private industry could also integrate this technology into their products, such as homes and cars.”

Dr. Woojun Yoon holds an ultrathin flexible crystalline silicon solar cell created using the patent-pending grinding process that reduces the total thickness of a commercially available cell to about 30 microns, which allows it to bend without breaking. (NRL photo)

The patent-pending production process starts with an off-the-shelf, rear-contact solar cell.

The silicon cell is glued to a flexible conductive foil, like a stainless steel alloy, and then has its original top surface removed by a precision grinder and lapping machine.

Now that the cell is only 30 microns thick it can bend without breaking, providing critical flexibility for power generation for both commercial and military applications, said Dr. Woojun Yoon, principal investigator, and lead inventor.

“Solar-powered systems are critical to enhance operational capability, improve energy efficiency, and reduce reliance on supply lines for fuel,” Yoon said.

TechLink, the U.S. Navy’s partnership intermediary for technology transfer, is helping businesses communicate with the laboratory, evaluate the technology, and prepare license agreements so they can begin manufacturing the ultrathin solar cells.

Micaela Whalen, a licensing associate at TechLink, recently visited the laboratory and is the point of contact for businesses interested in adopting the Navy manufacturing techniques.

“This is the second technology we’ve seen from this research group in the last six months and both of them are capable of transforming the market,” Whalen said.

In early December 2018, the Navy submitted a patent application for a method of manufacturing ultrathin flexible mono- and multi-crystalline silicon solar cells.

“There’s value in partnering with the Navy on the technical aspects of manufacturing these solar cells,” Whalen said. “But there’s also value in the market protections that companies can get through a patent license agreement with the Navy. We’re here to help businesses get both.”


Businesses interested in evaluating and licensing the technology can contact Micaela Whalen at micaela.whalen@montana.edu or by telephone at 406-994-1302.