Researchers at MIT have created a solar cell so light and thin it can be placed on a soap bubble without the bubble popping.

While it may take years to commercialise this new breed of lightweight cell, the laboratory proof-of-concept published in Organic Electronics shows there is potential for the discovery to power the next generation of portable devices, according to study authors Professor Vladimir Bulovic, research scientist Annie Wang and doctoral student Joel Jean.

The key to the breakthrough was to make the cell, substrate that supports it and protective layer all in one process.

“The innovative step is the realisation that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulovic says.

To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble.

“If you breathe too hard, you might blow it away,” Jean says.

One exciting factor is that the process of cell formation takes place in a vacuum chamber at room temperature and without the use of any solvents, unlike conventional solar-cell manufacturing, which requires high temperatures and harsh chemicals.

This opens the door to solar being deposited directly on a range of materials and devices, such as clothing, paper and consumer electronics.

“You could use almost any material,” Jean says, because the processing takes place under such benign conditions.

Work will now begin on assessing whether the discovery is able to be commercialised.

“How many miracles does it take to make it scalable?” Bulovic says.” We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”