Can a 3D printed solar tree capture energy from the sun? Yes, say researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Not only do these little powerhouses make electricity from the sun, they also harvest energy from the wind and changes in temperature.  VTT is the largest multi-technological applied research organization in northern Europe. It is part of the Finnish Ministry of Employment and Economy.

3d printed solar leaf

The tiny leaves are made of 3D printed organic solar cells. They react to sunlight to make enough electricity to power a cell phone or other small device. The flexible cells also make electricity when they vibrate, which happens when the wind blows or changes in temperature occur. The cells not only make electricity but can store it as well.

The “trunk” of the tree is manufactured from the byproducts created when real trees are harvested and made into lumber, so the trees even smell like real wood. The tiny trees can be used outdoors or indoors. The more “leaves” the solar tree has, the more power it generates.

Each “leaf” is just 0.2 millimeters thick and consists of electrodes and polymer layers. The engineers at VTT actually made them look like real leaves — well, sort of, if you squint a little and let your imagination roam free. VTT claims 200 of its leaves are good for 3.2 amperes of electricity. It they are placed on an outdoor location, one square meter of leaves can generate 10.4 watts in direct sunshine. Each “leaf” has its own micro-converter built in.

The 3D printed leaves have a useful life of 2 to 3 years. VTT says they can be fully recyclable so new ones can be produced with old materials. Thanks to their roll-to-roll manufacturing method, they can produce up to 100 meters of leaf rolls per minute.

Innovative thinking about solar power is taking place all around the world. In India,  researchers have unveiled a solar power tree they claim can produce 5 kilowatts of electricity while using only 4 square feet of land. For areas where open land is at a premium, the solar trees could produce significant energy in far less space than a conventional solar panel installation would require. Creative people are finding new ways to harvest the free power of sunlight every day.