Think about the things you have seen boasting solar panels for powering gadgets on the go. They all fit into two categories: stiff, flat solar cells applied in small tiles to create a somewhat flexible surface or "flexible" solar panels -- which are, in fact, only flexible in one direction. They can be rolled into a cylinder, but not curved around a three dimensional object like a sphere. More flexibility often means less efficiency as well.
Thanks to a breakthrough in solar cell structure and encapsulation techniques by the Frauenhofer Institute, solar cells integrated into complex surfaces are expected to be on the shelves by the end of this year. The high efficiency (>20 percent) solar panels based on mono-crystalline silicon also reduce the risk of breakage and can be laid out redundantly, so that even if a cell breaks, solar power continues to be generated.
The imagination runs wild. Consider the quality of life improvement that could be achieved by integrating communication equipment or fans into hard hats worn by rescue crews or construction workers. Bicycle helmets with integrated lighting could save lives.
And should solar-powered clothing ever emerge from the realm of instant e-waste to perform as befits the additional resources required, better three-dimensional options pose a solar design prerequisite.
On Sale SoonThe Frauenhofer Institute reports that Bluetooth-ready ski helmets powering devices such as phones or MP3 players, after redesign (presumably to be a bit less geeky and more integrated) and field testing, will be on sale for approximately 300 euros (about US$400) by the end of 2012.
Though perhaps a heater would also be useful, on those cold slopes...
Why ski helmets? Testing in the temperature extremes faced by skiers helps to optimize the performance of the solar cells (which become more efficient as temperatures drop) and the batteries (which suffer performance losses in the cold).
Motorcyclers may be next. Helmet-integrated communications devices are popular among German riders, and the addition of solar cells will not be so shocking in the high-priced helmet market. The solar cell unit alone is expected to cost less than 100 euros, depending upon the specifications.