Nanoscientist; 2014 Emerging Explorer
Photograph by John Todd
Chinese nanoscientist and Stanford professor Xiaolin Zheng leads a research team that created a groundbreaking invention that unlocks the practical potential of solar power. The team created solar cells in the form of flexible stickers—only a tenth of the thickness of plastic wrap. The skinny, bendable solar cells produce the same amount of electricity as rigid ones. Since solar stickers are lighter, they will be easier and less expensive to install. And because they are extremely flexible, they can be attached to any surface—the back of a mobile phone, a skylight, a wall, a curved column. Zheng predicts peel-and-stick solar cells could one day paper the sides of buildings, cover sidewalks to light walkways, energize home security systems, and help power solar cars or planes. Along with industrial uses for the flexible solar cells, Zheng envisions people being able to stop at their corner store to pick up a pack of solar cells the way one buys batteries today.
Where were you born?
Where do you currently live?
How did you get started in your field of work?
When I started my graduate school at Princeton University, I became interested in energy-related research. It is a simple desire to enable a better life quality for normal people, like my parents, in a sustainable way.
What has been your most rewarding or memorable experience in your field?
When I first successfully made a nanoscale solar cell while doing postdoc at Harvard University. The most challenging thing is to convince the funding agencies that solar stickers are worth studying.
What's a normal work day like for you?
I spend most of my days on campus at Stanford University: teaching, meeting students, writing papers, and applying for funding.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Believe in yourself.
If you could have people do one thing to help save energy what would it be?
Turn off the light when you leave a room.
In Their Words
By making solar cells extremely thin and flexible, they can be used in all kinds of new ways. I hope our discovery will dramatically expand the affordable, practical, widespread application of solar power.