Editor’s Note: Xiaolin Zheng is one of National Geographic’s 2014 Emerging Explorers, part of a program that honors tomorrow’s visionaries—those making discoveries, making a difference, and inspiring people to care about the planet.
The catalyst for Xiaolin Zheng’s groundbreaking work in solar energy began with an offhand comment her father made years ago at her parents’ apartment, a 13-story complex in the northeast China city of Anshan.
“In China, the rooftops of many buildings are packed with solar energy devices,” says Zheng. “One day my father mentioned how great it would be if a building’s entire surface could be used for solar power, not just the roof, but also walls and windows.”
An invention from Zheng’s research team at Stanford University might someday make that possible. They have created a type of solar cell that is thin, flexible, and adhesive—a solar sticker, in effect, that could help power everything from buildings to airplanes.