The idea of solar fabrics is nothing new. Researchers have been trying to figure out how to incorporate solar technology into wearable, drape-able designs for years, and for good reason. The variety of applications that a solar fabric could have compared to flat, brittle solar panels is an exciting prospect. A solar fabric would be lightweight, foldable, portable, wearable and capable of capturing more of the sun's energy because it would be collecting sunlight from many different angles at once as opposed to a flat, stationary panel.
So far, most solar fabric innovations have involved either printing solar cells onto regular fabrics or weaving solar technology into or onto the fabrics, which are very cool breakthroughs, but a new project by an international team of scientists and engineers has found a way to make fibers that work like self-contained solar cells, meaning a resulting fabric would itself be the solar technology. The silicon-based fibers are photovoltaic just like crystalline silicon solar cells used in solar panels and could eventually be used to make electricity-generating fabrics for clothing, tents, backpacks -- basically anything you could imagine.
Gizmag reports on how these amazing photovoltaic fibers were made, "The origin of the solar-power fiber lies in earlier research by the team, on merging optical fibers with microchips by using high-pressure chemistry to deposit semi-conductors into tiny holes in optical fibers that are finer than a human hair. Effectively, the outer skin of the fiber became its own integrated chip. In the current phase, the team has gone a step further and used the same high-pressure chemistry to form the silicon fiber itself out of crystalline silicon semiconductor materials, so that the fiber becomes a solar cell."
Beyond just making a photovoltaic fiber, in order to make solar power fabric, the fibers must be bendable and long enough to do something with. The team has already made meters-long fibers with the material, but they think they can achieve 10 meters or longer (about 33 feet) of flexible silicon solar-cell fibers.
"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," said John Badding, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University and the lead researcher on the project.
The solar fibers could not only charge our smartphones and gadgets with our clothing, but become wearable power sources for soldiers who now have to tote around heavy batteries for their electronics or become kevlar material used in spacecraft. Seriously, the possibilities are endless.