Solar energy will very likely be the main source of power as the world continues to strive toward greater sustainability. But it won’t be just the large panels that get the job done. In fact, I’m willing to bet that ultra thin and flexible solar cells that can be attached to virtually any surface will be the future. Which is why breakthroughs in this area are so important. And now a team of South Korea scientists has successfully created a super thin solar cell, which is so flexible it can be wrapped around a pencil without causing damage or too much strain to it.

The solar PV cell that they created is one micrometer thick (which is even thinner than a human hair) and it is this thinness that gives it the extreme flexibility it boasts of. It is made from a semiconductor gallium arsenide, which is stamped onto a flexible metal substrate. No adhesive is used in this process, instead it is fused with the electrode on the substrate with a cold welding process that involves applying pressure at 170 degrees Celsius. And the metal layer also acts as a reflector that directs light back onto the cell.

Testing the limits of the cell’s flexibility they found that it can be bent around an object with a radius of 1.4 millimeters. Despite their thinness, the solar cells have an energy conversion efficiency comparable to thicker ones. They also exhibited only one quarter of the strain from the bending compared to a 3.5 micrometers thick cell.

The real-world application of this type of cell would be far-ranging. It could be used on smartphones, fabric, and smart glasses, while it could also easily be integrated into self-powered devices, such as, for example, environmental sensors located in hard to reach places.

There is no definitive word yet on when and if they plan to bring this cell to market.