Miles Barr

Invented the first-ever solar cells fabricated on everyday substrates

From an early age, Miles Barr developed an aptitude for creating inventions that challenged the arbitrary bounds of any single subject area, encouraging interdisciplinary thought processes and collaborations, which have enabled his wide-ranging inventions from childhood to MIT. Miles notes that his early childhood “inventions” rarely served a real-world practical purpose beyond being fun; however, notes that the experiences taught him that he can use whatever toys (or tools) he can find to make an even better toy, a notion that he still find useful today.

Currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT, Miles has developed the first-ever solar cells fabricated directly on a variety of ubiquitous everyday substrates, such as common fiber-based papers, a breakthrough that has significant implications for solar power generation applications and deployment strategies. This new technology is enabled by a portfolio of individual innovations spanning alternative energy, chemistry, electrical engineering, and industrial design, which have been achieved with a cross-disciplinary team under the guidance of Professor Karen K. Gleason in Chemical Engineering and Professor Vladimir Bulović in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The paper solar cells are enabled by chemical vapor deposition of thin polymer device layers, which Miles deposits in custom reaction chambers that he designed and built at MIT. This all-dry, nondestructive process allows for extreme substrate-versatility, which he has demonstrated on tissue paper, tracing paper, newsprint, copy paper, wax paper, parchment paper, and SaranTM wrap, to name a few. The ability to fabricate flexible solar cells on any substrate inspires a vision of a world where rapidly manufactured, low-cost solar cells are seamlessly integrated into existing products and in formats that are ubiquitous in our society. The paper solar cells have been featured on CNET, Discovery News, and CNN and have been demonstrated to notable leaders including the CEO of Italian energy company ENI S.p.A., the President of Italy, and President Obama’s Science and Technology advisor John Holdren.

As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, Miles completed majors in chemical engineering, mathematics, and music. Outside the classroom, Miles exercised his talents as a leader of diverse organizations, including the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia national music fraternity, and Tau Beta Pi national engineering honor society.

As Miles notes benefiting from numerous mentors throughout his life, he too works to contribute as an educator and leader. At MIT, Miles has mentored undergraduate and graduate researchers in his lab and as the head teaching assistant for the chemical engineering projects laboratory through which he led 40 undergraduates in semester-long technical projects sponsored by industrial partners. Miles works to instill in his mentees the importance of maintaining an overarching vision while appreciating the incremental steps necessary to transform innovative ideas into reality.