When John Anthony holds it up in the laboratory, it could look for all the world like an ordinary glass microscope slide with a thin strip of aluminum on it.
It turns out to be a prototype for the solar energy panel of the future — a panel so cheap that getting juice from the sun would make sense even in often-cloudy Kentucky.
It's one of several futurist projects — including spray-on solar cells and super-efficient solid state lighting — being developed by Anthony, the Hubbard Professor of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky.
The problem with the current generation of solar cells is that they are heavy and expensive. Put today's silicone-based solar voltaic array on your roof and you might need to reinforce your rafters. And the cost could easily top $10,000 — money you won't recoup in energy savings.
"In very sunny areas, you can do that," Anthony said. "In a place like Kentucky, the payback never comes."
Anthony is working on a carbon-based material that could be spread on something like Saran Wrap. It might not be as efficient and durable as a silicone-based system, he said, but it would be a lot cheaper and could be recycled when it wears out. Stretch it across your roof to produce power, then, when it wears out, stretch some more.
Anthony also is looking for other uses for these carbon-based cells. Why not tune them to produce electricity from fluorescent light instead of sunlight? That way, they could cover, say, a shelf, desktop or other surfaces in an office, using the light powered by conventional electricity to create more electricity.
Back in his office, Anthony picks up a small piece of slate that has what appears to be paint on it, and two wires attached. It turns out the rock has been treated with sprayed-on solar cells.
The Department of Defense is interested in this line of research because it could be used by soldiers who operate in places where there are no power lines.
"They said they wanted something ... they could basically spray on a rock," Anthony said. "They (the soldiers) operate at night so they bed down during the day. They recharge their batteries and when they wake up, they're done. They kick some sand over it and they're off."
Spray-on cells also could come in handy for first responders in disasters. But the cells last for only a day. Anthony is working on extending their usefulness.
His students like experimenting with spray-on cells. "It's a fun one — graffiti in the lab," he said.
The solid-state lighting he's working on could use even less electricity than compact fluorescent bulbs, without the tiny bit of mercury that causes disposal problems with CFLs, Anthony said. They generate almost no heat, but he's still working on a color balance that people will be comfortable with.
Anthony also has started a company, Outrider Technologies LCC, at the UK Advanced Science and Technology Commercialization Center.
The company is working on things such as flexible electronic displays that can be created on plastic using an inkjet printer.
Sony has used his technology to create a flexible display, and the technology could be used in such things as e-book readers. He envisions replacing, for example, the price stickers and advertising signs in a store with displays that could be updated with a few taps on a computer keyboard.
"Think of these advertising signs that they're constantly throwing away," he said. "That's going to save a lot of paper waste."
For his university research, Anthony has received grants from the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and various industries.
"It's a popular set of projects right now," he said.