Power suits: wearable fabric that can generate electricity from the sun
A major consumer of time and money in the manufacturing of aircraft, motor vehicles, electronic equipment and other products is adapting assembly lines to produce different sizes, shapes and styles of such complex items. Work must stop along the line while machines are reconfigured to change how raw materials are cut, holes are drilled, and rivets are punched into place.
These fabrics could be used in a wide range of settings, from sports and leisure, to car interiors and everyday clothing. Jeans could charge a mobile phone, curtains could power lamps and upholstery could charge car batteries. Solar tents and umbrellas have been envisioned – and even a solar-powered device attached to a tennis racket to measure the speed of a player’s serve.
“Flexible, light and durable solar cells embedded in fabrics are expected to be available in the very near future. This means that solar-powered personal devices could soon be on the market,” says Dephotex project manager Fanny Breuil of the Cetemmsa Technological Centre in Spain. “The next generation of flexible photovoltaic devices is on the way,” she adds.
Solar energy is a completely renewable energy source with huge potential to replace fossil fuels. Some researchers forecast it could account for more than 60 per cent of the global energy market within 10 years.
The research work done by Dephotex team is bringing this rapidly developing technology down to the personal level. Other small-scale devices that could be powered by solar energy include electronic patches that release medicine for skin ailments, “accelerometers” that measure an athlete’s speed, heart rate monitors and low-power lights.
The Dephotex team identified the suitability of various materials for use as photovoltaic cells, as well as different techniques for implanting the cells into fabric, depending on the purpose. For large awnings (roofs) on stadiums, for instance, it was determined that photovoltaic patches must be developed rather than large sheets of the material. Factors such as durability, electrical properties and cost were also studied.
The research yielded substantive results, though follow-up work is needed to improve efficiency and ensure the greatest degree of flexibility. A number of research centres and large companies have expressed an interest in collaborating with the Dephotex team and pursuing potential commercial products.