Focus: Folded Solar Panel Opens Without Power Source

A spacecraft solar cell design uses a temperature-sensitive polymer to expand the panel’s surface area by 10 times in 40 seconds.

A toy has inspired a new design for a solar cell that could be folded away compactly on a spacecraft and then rapidly expanded when needed. The structure can unfold to increase its surface area by ten times in just 40 seconds without any power source; instead, it uses a polymer that moves in response to temperature changes. The concept could also be used in other situations where sheet-like structures undergo dramatic and rapid changes in shape, such as tents or roofing canopies.

Sheets and membranes that unfurl from compact shapes folded in an origami-like manner, called deployable structures, have a variety of potential applications in architecture, energy generation, and robotics. They are found in nature—for example, in stowed insect wings and in leaves packed inside buds. Artificial deployable structures are typically made from thin, flexible sheets, and the unpacking can be effected by a mechanical framework that pulls the folded sheet open.

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