Imagine if solar panels could maintain peak efficiency by shaking off any dust that settled on them, without using any electricity. Well, such technology may soon be a reality. Scientists have created a thin polymer film that oscillates when exposed to sunlight, which could be used as a coating on photovoltaic panels in dusty locations such as deserts.

The pliable plastic was developed by researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology and the Humboldt University in Berlin. It contains light-sensitive molecules known as azo-dyes, which are apparently the secret to its success – even if the process isn't entirely understood.

"The light-sensitive molecules bend and stretch under the influence of visible light," says Eindhoven researcher Michael Debije. "Since these molecules are bound within the polymer network of crystal, this results in the material oscillating as if cramped. Of course, there's more to it than that – this is what we are investigating now."

While previous projects have created materials that move in response to light, they've generally required high-intensity ultraviolet light. By contrast, the new material needs nothing more than unprocessed natural daylight to get it moving.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.