Team leader Ted Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, said on Thursday that the cell harnesses infrared light from the sun and can form a flexible film on the surface of cloth, paper or other materials.
And the film can turn 30% of the sun's power into usable electrical energy - a far better performance than the 6%gleaned from the best plastic solar cells now in use.
"The fact that these materials harness the sun's energy using flexible materials potentially could allow you to weave the plastics into fibres, sort of the way we have synthetic fibres already, and to weave those into clothing and make something that's a wearable solar cell," Sargent said from Boston, where he is currently working.
"That's sort of portable electricity." Sargent said the coating could be woven into a shirt or sweater and used to charge an item such as a cell phone.
"We expect that our cell phones or our e-mail can go anywhere with us, but we don't have that expectation of a continuous supply of power. The best that we have is batteries, which run out," he said.
"So if we could have a wireless source of power like how the sun would provide, this would be pretty exciting."
Search for investment
Research about the new cell was published in the Sunday online edition of the scientific journal Nature Materials, and Sargent said he was now looking for investors who could turn the invention into a commercially viable product.
Terry White, president of the Solar Energy Society of Canada said solar cells along these lines could transform the industry.
"If they make [solar cells] both less expensive and the potential applications more varied, then it's a major breakthrough," he said.
Sargent said the technology could be available to the average consumer within five to 10 years, but it already has Wall Street venture capitalists interested.