It's time to move past the image of photovoltaic (PV) technology as being clunky, brittle and ugly black panels on rooftops. It is possible to create well-designed, interesting personal products using classic solar cells. Moreover, new forms of photovoltaic materials will allow for the integration of solar power into wide varieties of goods. One of the most intriguing is the idea of adding PV power to items we wear. Solar backpacks already exist -- but what about solar clothing? If the Massachusetts-based Konarka Technologies and the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) are right, we'll soon see not just solar cells sewn onto jackets, but solar power woven into fabric itself.
Thin-film polymer PV makes this possible. While less efficient than traditional silicon panels (8% as compared to 25-35%), solar polymers are more flexible, better able to withstand damage, and potentially cheaper to make. Konarka has already demonstrated a functional polymer PV fiber; their work with EPFL will focus now on weaving a fabric from polymer PV threads with at least 4% efficiency.
At that low level of power, you'll need a broad area to soak up enough energy to do anything really useful. Unsurprisingly, the initial application of the fabric will likely be in tents, probably for the military. The polymer PV fabric would be woven into the canvas or nylon, making the entire tent a power generator (at least during the day). Sails for sailboats might also be an early application.
I say, still too clunky. I don't care that I can't charge my computer with a solar jacket -- I could at least trickle-charge my mobile phone. And what about solar curtains for the home -- they don't have to run my house, but they could still feed power back into the grid, passively, day after day. Ultimately, I'd like to see smart, power-generating fabric integrated throughout consumer products, replacing old, static, dead fabric. We don't need to power our society on solar cloth alone -- but that doesn't mean we can't get it to help.
Personally, I'd like solar fabric that would warm me up at the first hint of a goose-bump. What colors might these smart, power-generating fabrics come in? It would be nice to have several of these helpers all around the house as curtains, quilts, tablecloths, dishcloths and towels and especially throws--such as the one I have over my knees and under my laptop. This one is such a static, dead thing...doesn't help me at all.
I don't know if I'd like having so much electric energy surrounding my body so closely.
Personaly id love em as a tarp or as an unbrella to take to the beach...
I don't see much application for this in distributed power generation back to the grid. It's probably not worth the expense for such small amounts of electricty. However imagine a household trickle charging station for all of your portable devices - cel, mp3 player, digi-cam, etc. Rather than trickle juice TO the grid you can remove your devices that trickle juice FROM the grid and charge them instead with solar power. Those small "phantom loads" can really add up.
Similar to teh army tent idea, how about special event tents with LED's sewn into the fabric and batteries around the base? No need for noisy generator's to light up the tents at night, or unsafe cables run back to a grid supply.
It's an idea that works with just about anything. Why not weave the MP3 player right into the jacket? Or a radio/cel phone? Could be especially useful for soldiers or cops walking the beat, where they're outside all day anyway.