Solar panels are popular for everything from heating water to charging electric cars like the Tesla [NSDQ:TSLA] Model S, but they can be expensive to manufacture and hard to install.

Soon, though, you may be able to spray solar cells onto a surface to collect energy from the sun.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have been experimenting with solar cells (the individual units that make up a solar panel) made from zinc phosphate nanoparticles. These particles can be dissolved into an ink, but still react to sunlight after they're sprayed onto a surface and have dried. In effect, they've turned those big solar panels into spray-on form.

The benefits to spray-on solar cells could be twofold. First, because they're made of two common elements -- zinc and phosphorous -- they should be cheaper to manufacture than conventional cells.

Second, since the zinc phosphate cells could also be sprayed directly onto a plastic backing, panels made from them would be lighter than what is currently available. That means they won't require extra supports if someone decides to mount them on a roof.

Spray-on solar cells would probably be of interest to owners of electric cars, many of whom already use solar power to charge their vehicles. In a 2012 study by the California Center for Sustainable Energy, 39 percent of electric car owners surveyed said they had solar panels installed at their homes.


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