Clothing That Produces Energy: Future Solar Fabrics Possible

These sweaters could be generating power as their wearers bowl. | Photo: Jeremy Reding/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Did you open a package this week hoping for a nifty solar charger only to find out your gift was an ill-fitting sweater? In a few years, your gift might be both. A team of researchers led by Penn State scientists has developed an optical fiber with photovoltaic properties that they say can be produced in strands many meters long, raising the possibility that the "solar thread" could be woven into cloth.

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"Our goal is to extend high-performance electronic and solar-cell function to longer lengths and to more flexible forms," said Penn State chemistry professor John Badding, who led the team developing the fiber. "We already have made meters-long fibers but, in principle, our team's new method could be used to create bendable silicon solar-cell fibers of over 10 meters in length."

"Long, fiber-based solar cells give us the potential to do something we couldn't really do before: We can take the silicon fibers and weave them together into a fabric with a wide range of applications such as power generation, battery charging, chemical sensing, and biomedical devices," Badding added.

Cross-section of the PV fiber, thinner than a human hair. | Photo: Badding lab

An advantage of the PV fiber is that unlike a flat solar cell, which must be aimed at the sun in order to achieve full efficiency, the cylindrical fibers are pretty much always aimed at the sun regardless of their orientation. That, incidentally, was one of the properties of the notoriously failed solar firm Solyndra's tubular solar panels. But instead of being consigned to expensive roof modules, Badding's lab's fibers suggest a range of uses from personal appliance charging to use in the military.

"The military especially is interested in designing wearable power sources for soldiers in the field," said Badding.

Domestic applications are likely a few years down the road. Still, ReWire wonders: if solar fabrics do arrive on the market, will we see a resurgence in backyard clotheslines among the early adopter tech set?

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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