Solar panels and similar solar-sourced objects have often been very limited in what they can achieve. From merely sitting on your roof all day long, that can only get you so far in the power department when compared to what you need these days; the demand outweighs the supply here.
They might be suitable for powering a few extra items at home like a slow cooker or a tumble dryer, in the long run, the future of solar-power might come in the form of wearables.
What has made this possible? The answer is solar cell fabric, and it’s coming to a store near you sooner than you might think!
What is solar cell fabric?
Solar panels are traditionally made of “photovoltaic panels” and most of the time made of glass or other types of rigid material that can afford to stand in intricate and often scorching places like deserts.
However, this is not ideal nor very practical for clothing, and so the idea of solar-powered fabrics has been one of fiction for a while now, but thanks to incredible research there is an immediate breakthrough in creating functional solar cell components that are not only flexible but also wearable as well.
Think about it; you can track your fitness levels or keep your phone or tablet battery power topped up throughout the day, all because of the small, breathable solar panels on your new jacket or t-shirt.
Or what about your car seat which can help charge your cars electronics or indeed your phone or tablet as you power down the road?
Let’s take a look at some of the main benefits of solar cell fabric…
What are the main benefits?
Firstly, to give you an idea behind the technology and actual science at hand, the ability to charge electronic devices via USB that will either be external or indeed actually integrated into the clothing itself would bring a double-shot of calm and convenience for wearers.
Then there is the idea that if these items are adopted on a broader and larger scale, there could be a significant reduction in electricity usage and demand to charge our devices and could make a substantial difference to the peak load issues experienced by electricity grid operators.
One of the biggest challenges in getting solar panels into clothing in the first place was due to size. Although they have significantly shrunk over the years to make them small (and plentiful) enough to fit onto a jacket sleeve, for instance, it was going to be a challenge in order to get them down to the true micro-size needed to fit into modern, breathable clothing in such a large quantity.
All that said in 2017, the University of Tokyo and research institute RIKEN showed off a prototype ultra-thin photovoltaic device that was coated with a stretchable and waterproof film that would not only mean they could be fitted to fabrics, and therefore clothing, it would also make them machine-washable.
It’s been made very clear that we are all concerned about how we rely on oil, coal and other fossil fuels as critical sources of energy but how much damage are we causing to our environment by extracting these materials? And what will we do when these supplies inevitably run out?
There has been a real burst of enthusiasm behind renewable energy over the last few decades, and solar energy is one of the significant benefactors in that regard, with plenty getting behind other forms of renewable solar power in the way of solar panels of one’s roof.
The sun is, of course, an endless source and supplier of energy (at least for the next several billions of years!) and solar power means we can convert the Sun’s rays directly into electricity, using the solar above, or photovoltaic cells.
We usually see these cells attached to the glass, normally stuck of the roofs of homes around the world or perhaps in their hundreds out in bigs swaths of the desert where solar energy is in abundance.
However, and as mentioned earlier, glass is a significant and inflexible material than can very often be fragile, and there is now plenty of research on how we can take these solar cells and plant them onto flexible materials, especially textile fabrics for instance.
Of course, we have only mentioned our portable electronic devices so far, in theory, there are so many other products that could be used to turn solar energy into electricity.
What other uses are there?
From practical uses in living areas like tents and marquees, for example, a solar tent could be an ideal solution for those who have experienced a sudden loss of their homes, either from a natural disaster like flooding or earthquake.
This would not only provide shelter to the victims but also offer much-needed power, avoiding the need for cumbersome and heavy power generators having to be installed nearby.
Not to mention, the power should come relatively quickly for those who need it, it can take a long time for emergency generators to arrive at areas which are in need, fewer resources are required, less manpower in general; simply get the tents to the people and you’re pretty much set, you just have to hope there’s enough natural light!
But, what is the actual technology that goes into making this all possible? One example comes from Nottingham Trent University in the UK.
In the university’s School of Art & Design, the research team investigated how feasible it is for solar cells to be so small that they could be woven into textiles and fabrics so that solar-enabled clothing could be a genuine and real thing, rather than just a cool idea.
The University project makes use of solar cells that are just 3mm x 1.5mm, essentially flea-sized!
And despite all this tiny packaging, the technology inside is an absolute powerhouse, even though the individual cells are too small also to be felt by the wearer at all!
It’s not as if the simple idea of charging a phone or handheld device with your clothing is beyond reason now as these scientists have done it.
This simple University project in Nottingham provided enough energy to charge both a smartphone and a Fitbit device directly from the energy taken from solar cells, with 200 individual cells generating 2.5 to 10 volts and up to 80 milliwatts in power.
As mentioned earlier, there is also the possibility of waterproofing thanks to each cell being laminated in a waterproof resin, allowing them to survive in all kinds of wet environments like torrential downpours and laundry cycles.
Another function, of course, is to do away with the idea of using clothes to charge your phone entirely and instead actually implement the cells in the glass of the phone screen itself, something which has already had some traction in the news.
But what about the bad stuff?
Of course, like anything, there are some downsides to solar fabrics and textiles. The most immediate issue is that the technology is very much in its infancy.
In a perfect world, this technology would be out in public, and we’d be charging all of our electronic gizmos and gadgets from our clothes all day and every day.
Sadly, due to the limitations of the technology, especially when it comes to the micro-sized solar cells at hand, there is still much to do and learn in this department.
Although we get closer to making significant breakthroughs here, there is very much plenty to be done before solar fabrics enter the mainstream and you start picking up jackets and shirts to power your phone in real stores.
Although the prototypes mentioned above sound cool and futuristic with so much potential, it should be remembered that they are just that, prototypes with so much more research to be poured into it and agonized over during the coming years.
What do the scientists say?
Markus B. Schubert and Jürgen H.Werner of Stuttgart universities wrote in a 2006 article that finding the right combination of traits is hard.
Essentially what this means is that when bringing all of the things together that makes clothes… Well, outfits cannot be done when it comes to including miniature iPV solar panels yet because that breakthrough simply hasn’t been found, having the technology be flexible and yet functional is still a pipe-dream for most of us on a mass scale, it’s either one or the other sadly and until we crack that, only then will we see genuine attempts at solar fabrics enter an actual reality for consumers.
What else should be considered?
There is also the costs to consider, it is not currently cheap to implement thousands of embedded solar cells into clothes and other kinds of fabrics, due to the various things that must be considered such as the design of the battery and the connection ports that physically allows the item to charge devices, where do they go? How big do they have to be? Do they impede on certain parts of the body? And so on…
One of the big elephants in the room we have yet to address is what if you live in a less than sunny country in Northern Europe for instance where during Winter it can get pretty cold, dark and generally depressing when it comes to the weather.
In places like Iceland for instance where the public sees less than 3-4 hours of sunlight with it regularly being dark by 3 pm, especially around the time of the Winter Solstice, solar-powered jackets and shirts won’t be much use here. They may keep you warm, but they won’t bring power to your phone! Where’s the practicality in that?
The same can be said for many countries during Winter, even in other places were sunset times remain reasonable even during the colder months, the amount of practical sunlight available for most of us stuck in an office, or school environment will be minimal.
So, what’s being done to further progress solar cell fabric and make it more practical for everyday use?
Of course, costs are coming down all the time, with the energy and interest in solar manufacturing and solar fabrics in general, the cost to create these things will naturally decrease over time, allowing more prototypes to be made and further research and development from other groups, especially the multi-billion dollar clothing giants that dominate the high street.
A great example of this was back in 2016, where the Smithsonian reported how design and chemistry teams were teaming up to develop solar textiles that had all sorts of uses.
From the tents mentioned above to other potentially essential items like car seats and curtains.
This was three years ago as of writing this article, and further progress has only been made in this field, where similar prototypes are coming out all of the time, pushing the boundaries of what came before.
Since then we’ve seemed motoring giants like Toyota use solar-powered technology to add even more range to their Prius line of cars by adding solar panels (up to twenty-seven miles extra) proving that they do indeed add practicality for most road users.
In August 2020, it was reported that fabric-based solar-cells were indeed on the horizon with German researchers for Fraunhofer trying their hand at semitrailers producing electricity for various on-board systems by use of blinds.
Going further, news of energy records being set by organic solar cells made it to BBC News on August 2018 after those previously mentioned German researchers were able to crack up to a rate of 27.3% for sunlight conversion.
For context, the average before this as around 15-22% of sunlight being converted, so naturally this is a big step forward.
There is also a big hope for Perovskite Solar Cells which could be a key component in bringing the cost down when it comes to using solar energy in general.
With silicone being a costly product to manufacture and use in the process of providing solar energy, perovskite solar cells are much the opposite, man-made and thin and flexible enough to be simply painted on the side of a building!
Although plenty of milestones are being reached today in the field of solar cell fabrics and the fact that solar clothing is fast becoming a genuine and practical reality, feeling closer than ever, there are still plenty of challenges ahead that must be overcome before it can indeed happen.
From things such as the cost of potentially thousands of embedded cells into clothing to the durability issues of said clothes when it comes to being lived in and indeed, over multiple washes, the requirement of a battery system and even connection points that allow the clothes to hold a charge.
That’s not forgetting the challenges from the environment as we strive to find an excellent alternative solution to fossil fuels that is practical, but yet stylish for everyday consumption.
Make no mistake though, solar manufacturing costs are falling every day and the appeal of these clothes and accessories is only growing, it feels as if this could be a giant answer in the quest to find useful and impactful renewable energy, and it’s right on the clothes we soon could be wearing to work, the gym, the party or even our holidays!