Ubiquitous energy: A solar game-changer?

Anyone who knew Miles C. Barr as a kid no doubt realized he’d go far one day.

His early childhood “inventions” included a robotic walking monkey built using a windshield-wiper motor from an abandoned school bus and a hovercraft he’d assembled with parts from a vacuum cleaner and a porch table. 

Likewise those who met him during his undergrad days at Vanderbilt University, where Barr completed not one, not two, but three majors, in chemical engineering, mathematics and music.

But perhaps no one could have quite predicted how Barr would use that creative, interdisciplinary focus to pioneer an approach to the fabrication of solar cells that would earn him the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize as a graduate student.

Barr, who received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012, was honored recently alongside his fellow prize-winners from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Barr’s latest innovation—an approach to the fabrication of solar cells that could allow them to be printed directly on common materials like paper and textiles—has been hailed as a breakthrough that could lead to widespread adoption of solar power, reducing the cost of solar energy by eliminating the need for specialized installation.

“There is a huge opportunity to harvest energy from the light that hits every surface around us,” Barr said.  “If we can take that energy and convert it into electricity without compromising the aesthetics of everyday surfaces, that is extremely powerful.”

Barr’s lightweight and bendable solar tech – developed with the support of the MIT Solar Frontiers Center and professors Karen Gleason and Vladimir Bulović – has the potential to open up untapped venues for solar in commercial applications, including wall paper, window shades and clothing. 

Its portability could make solar power generation both inexpensive and ubiquitous, integrating seamlessly into everyday environments. Barr hopes his approach will not only increase solar adoption in the U.S., but help those in the developing world as well.

Founded in 2011, Ubiquitous Energy is dedicated to developing a portfolio of emerging solar technologies. Barr and his colleagues are (as you might expect) currently exploring new ways to deploy solar energy harvesting capabilities in the form of products and surfaces we interact with every day. Ubiquitous Energy won the 2011 MIT Clean Energy Prize in the renewables category and also received the 2011 Fraunhofer-Techbridge U-Launch Award, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded award focused on helping promising clean energy start-ups.

Barr credits “the great ecosystem MIT offer[s] entrepreneurs starting commercial endeavors” (as well as by the example of his fellow students taking their brainy breakthroughs through to commercialization) with the creation of Ubiquitous Energy. The startup recently secured the initial funding to develop its commercial prototypes, and is currently focused on developing new technologies to deploy solar energy harvesting capabilities in the form of products and surfaces such as tissue paper, newsprint, copy paper and plastic wrap.

* Susan DeFreitas, EarthTechling