Researchers led by Dr Zhong Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed what they call the world’s first 3-D solar panel system. They claim that their system is cheaper, and up to six times more efficient, than conventional. planar solar cells.

Instead of using traditional solar panels, the system captures sunlight and turns it into electricity within fibre optic cables.

The scientists seeded optical fibres with zinc oxide nanostructures. Those nanostructures were then coated with a dye-sensitized material that converts light into electricity. The electricity is then captured using a liquid electrolyte surrounding the nanostructures.

Only the very tip of the cable needs to be exposed to light, meaning that most of the system can easily be concealed under roofs, in walls or even underground. This not only opens up architectural opportunities for concealing the solar panels but enables them to be protected from envirommental damage, such as from hail.

When any light which is not absorbed and converted into electricity reaches the end of the cable, it bounces back – doubling the chance of absorption. Dr Wang says that the result is up to six times more efficient than standard, planar solar cells with the same surface area.

The 3-D solar cells are cheap to manufacture because their main components are common materials like the fibre optic cables used in telecommunications and zinc oxide which is commonly used as a sunscreen, and because the manufacturing process requires much lower temperatures (about 70°C) than conventional solar cell production.