Up until now solar panels have fallen a little flat, literally. Whether they're on a house or an industrial solar field in the desert, solar panels have always been one shape: flat. But the world's not and there's no reason why our solar panels should be either.
Inspired by the way trees spread their leaves to capture sunlight, MIT Engineering Professor Jeffery Grossman wondered how efficient a three-dimensional shape covered in solar cells could be. It turns out that it has the potential to be quite efficient, even on an overcast, rainy day in Boston.
That's where we found Professor Grossman and his team, on the roof of their research lab at MIT with a desk covered in miniature 3D solar panels.
You might think doing a solar panel demonstration on an overcast day is pointless, but not so with 3D solar panels. Typically, grey skies are like kryptonite for solar power, but Professor Grossman found that 3D panels can actually pick up almost as much electricity on a cloudy day as it can when it's sunny out.
That efficiency, created by the dynamic shapes inspired by tree leaves, is what's really impressive about Professor Grossman's design. Not only are they less impacted by bad weather, their vertical shape allows them to pick up more direct sunlight and generate more electricity than flat panels using the same amount of ground space.
The team doesn't want their designs hidden away on rooftops either. Rachelle Villalon, the teams architect envisions a day when you'll find 3D solar panels placed around cities like statues, becoming urban icons, instead of simple flat panels hidden on a roof.