Consumer Peripherals

Turning clothes into solar mobile energy collectors

23 October 2020
The newly developed solar concentrator when irradiated with blue LED light: The polymer material is so flexible that it can be bent with tweezers. Source: EMPA

Researchers from Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) have developed a new polymer that could be woven into clothing to generate electricity functioning as mobile solar collectors to power smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Special luminescent materials, called luminescent solar concentrators (LSC), are materials that capture diffuse ambient light and transmit its energy to a solar cell, which is then converted to electrical energy. The problem is these materials are only available as rigid components and are unsuitable for use in textiles as they are not flexible or permeable to air and water vapor.

EMPA have succeeded in incorporating these luminescent materials into a polymer that allows for flexibility and air permeability. The material is based on amphiphilic polymer co-networks (APCN), polymers that have been around for a while and available on the market in the form of silicone-hydrogel contact lenses.

"The reason we chose exactly this polymer is the fact that we are capable of incorporating two immiscible luminescent materials at the nano scale and let them interact with each other,” said Luciano Boesel from the Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles at EMPA. “There are, of course, other polymers, in which these materials could be integrated; but this would lead to aggregation, and the production of energy would thus not be possible.”

EMPA added two different luminescent materials to the gel tissue, turning it into a flexible solar concentrator. Much like its rigid counterparts, these flexible luminescent materials capture a much wider spectrum of light than is possible with conventional photovoltaics.

The solar concentrators can be applied to textile fibers without the clothing becoming brittle or cracking or gathering water vapor in the form of sweat. These solar concentrators worn on the body offer a benefit of ever-increasing demand for energy, especially in portable devices.

To contact the author of this article, email PBrown@globalspec.com


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Discussion – 1 comment

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Re: Turning clothes into solar mobile energy collectors
#1
2020-Dec-15 12:43 AM

This is an interesting development. How does the energy conversion efficiency compare with existing voltaic cells? I have in mind that this technology could be applied to tent fabric with huge implications for temporary shelters, emergency accommodation etc. - but this will also be very cost sensitive.

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