The new material could make technology truly wireless.
"We have this expectation that we don't have to plug into a phone jack anymore to talk on the phone, but we're resigned to the fact that we have to plug into an electrical outlet to recharge the batteries," Sargent said. "That's only communications wireless, not power wireless."
He said the plastic coating could be woven into a shirt or sweater and used to charge an item like a cell phone.
"A sweater is already absorbing all sorts of light both in the infrared and the visible," said Sargent. "Instead of just turning that into heat, as it currently does, imagine if it were to turn that into electricity."
Other possibilities include energy-saving plastic sheeting that could be unfurled onto a rooftop to supply heating needs, or solar cell window coating that could let in enough infrared light to power home appliances.
Ultimately, a large amount of the sun's energy could be harnessed through "solar farms" and used to power all our energy needs, the researchers predict.
"This could potentially displace other sources of electrical production that produce greenhouse gases, such as coal," Sargent said.
In Japan, the world's largest solar-power market, the government expects that 50 percent of residential power supply will come from solar power by 2030, up from a fraction of a percent today.
The biggest hurdle facing solar power is cost-effectiveness.
At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power is significantly more expensive than conventional electrical power for residences. Average U.S. residential power prices are less than ten cents per kilowatt-hour, according to experts.
But that could change with the new material.
"Flexible, roller-processed solar cells have the potential to turn the sun's power into a clean, green, convenient source of energy," said John Wolfe, a nanotechnology venture capital investor at Lux Capital in New York City.
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