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Flexible, Fiber-Optic Solar Cell Could Be Woven Into Clothing

Soulskill posted about 2 years ago | from the current-fashion-trends dept.

Power 65

MrSeb writes "An international team of engineers, physicists, and chemists have created the first fiber-optic solar cell. These fibers are thinner than human hair, flexible, and yet they produce electricity, just like a normal solar cell. The U.S. military is already interested in weaving these threads into clothing, to provide a wearable power source for soldiers. In essence, the research team started with optical fibers made from glass — and then, using high-pressure chemical vapor deposition, injected n-, i-, and p-type silicon into the fiber, turning it into a solar cell (abstract). Functionally, these silicon-doped fiber-optic threads are identical to conventional solar cells, generating electricity from the photovoltaic effect. Whereas almost every solar cell on the market is crafted out of 2D, planar amorphous silicon on a rigid/brittle glass substrate, though, these fiber-optic solar cells have a 3D cross-section and retain the glass fiber's intrinsic flexibility. The lead researcher, John Badding of Penn State University, says the team has already produced 'meters-long fiber,' and that their new technique could be used to create 'bendable silicon solar-cell fibers of over 10 meters in length.' From there, it's simply a matter of weaving the thread into a fabric."

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A new way to recharge my Phone? (1)

dav1dc (2662425) | about 2 years ago | (#42219295)

Forget about the military applications, think about never having to charge your iDevice/Droid again! ...just plug it into your shirt. ^_^

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (5, Insightful)

masternerdguy (2468142) | about 2 years ago | (#42219397)

Forget your phone, this could provide endless power for medical devices from insulin pumps to more exotic things like replacement limbs and those artificial eyes that are getting better each year (you get to see a 12x12 pixel image now! wooo, shiney). One of the problems with medical devices is finding a continuous power supply.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (1)

sinij (911942) | about 2 years ago | (#42219465)

It won't - not enough power from solar cell even if you convert 100% of your surface area in a perfect light. Napkin calculation tells me it would take 48 sunlight to recharge your typical smartphone battery in ideal circumstances.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (2)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 2 years ago | (#42219501)

I assume you mean 48 hours, and that sounds wrong. The little "folding wallet" solar chargers do it in under a day.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219561)

Not sure how you think it sounds wrong. The folding wallet has more surface area than a smart phone by a factor of 4-6, I would estimate. Both of your numbers are correct and compatible.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 2 years ago | (#42219607)

Oh I thought we were discussing the surface area of an adult's shirt.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42220759)

Oh I thought we were discussing the surface area of an adult's shirt.

You were, it's just that not every fiber in the piece of clothing can be 'solar'.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (5, Informative)

dgatwood (11270) | about 2 years ago | (#42219935)

Your math is off by orders of magnitude.

A solar panel produces 8-10 watts per square foot. A smartphone while charging (with the screen off) typically draws no more than 500 mA at 5VDC, or about 2.5 watts. Some support faster charging at up to an amp. Either way, it requires nowhere near your entire surface area; with traditional PV cells, a typical adult could produce that much power with just one sleeve in full sun, give or take.

How that translates to flexible PV threads is anybody's guess.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (1)

Nikker (749551) | about 2 years ago | (#42223685)

An interesting implementation would be an entire piece of clothing like a hat entirely woven with this material. One weakness of traditional PV cells is the angle it faces the source (the sun). A perpendicular angle to the source achieves maximum results, being circular allows to capture light at different angles to the source much more efficiently.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (1)

RivenAleem (1590553) | about 2 years ago | (#42224317)

So, you think they should launch this in Mexico first?

Consistant Power? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42220117)

One of the problems with medical devices is finding a continuous power supply.

It still will be. Solar power is very inconsistant, even if you don't spend the whole day next to a window.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (3)

Sephwrath (2467088) | about 2 years ago | (#42219473)

First thing I thought of too, but makes me wonder how flexible this would be, could it be folded? How about ironed and washed without damage? No idea about fiber optics (a minute on Google didn't help) but those seem to be pertinent questions before it's ready to be integrated into clothes. The whole multi-angle light collection seems like it could be pretty useful as well.

Re:A new way to recharge my Phone? (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#42220837)

Plugs? How quaint. Charge wirelessly. Just having the phone on you results in charging it.

How about lining power wires (1)

AwesomeMcgee (2437070) | about 2 years ago | (#42219319)

Just curious, how much energy would it generate given the surface area of power lines strewn along light poles for hundreds of miles.. Would it over those lengths generate enough energy to juice those power lines and power a grid? Or at least to help power it?

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

masternerdguy (2468142) | about 2 years ago | (#42219427)

I'm not an EE, but it seems to me that just "adding more juice" along the power lines might not be a good idea. Might be hard to regulate?

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

tulcod (1056476) | about 2 years ago | (#42219681)

Not only is it hard to regulate, I cannot imagine these fibers have an output of 200kV AC at exactly 50Hz.

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

randy of the redwood (1565519) | about 2 years ago | (#42220745)

I think we are barreling off toward the silly on the ideas front, but if you restrict it to HV-DC lines, a single cell usually puts out .5-.6 VOC, so you just need to string 400,000 of them together and voila, you are pushing power in. That has to be seriously small surface area even aggregated across miles of line. Anyone want to do the math?

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

mcgrew (92797) | about 2 years ago | (#42219609)

There's no way to tell from TFA, it didn't state how much electricity was generated.

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

tulcod (1056476) | about 2 years ago | (#42219665)

If you're gonna spend money on solar panels close to power lines, then I have a weird suggestion for you: install actual solar panels close to power lines.

Re:How about lining power wires (2)

peragrin (659227) | about 2 years ago | (#42220887)

better yet install solar panels on every roof of every house.

Even if each house only generates 50% of the power they use the entire power grid would be far more stable

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

suutar (1860506) | about 2 years ago | (#42220233)

If we assume a 15cm diameter power cable (which means a 15cm effective width; sure, the actual cable circumference is more than that but half of it's out of the sunshine and the rest isn't all perpendicular), a one kilometer length of cable would have a 'collection area' of 150m^2. Given full-time sunshine (dicey) and 40% efficiency of conversion (roughly state of the art, iirc) that one kilometer cable will generate about 84 kW. Assume that an average day has about 6 hours of full sunshine (wild-ass guess) and we're looking at 504 kWh per day. Call it 500.
The average household power consumption in the US is about 12000kWh/year, or around 33kWh/day. So a 1km cable could supply about 15 houses, which isn't bad. But that's houses. Wikipedia says that overall power usage in the US per person is a bit over 83000 kWh/year, or 228 kWh per day. So that kilometer of wire can support two people, and we need 600 million kilometers of cable for the US. A probably questionalbe source I found on google [chacha.com] indicates that the current US power grid has about 300,000km of power lines, so we're looking at multiplying that by 2000. Definitely a big infrastructure task. That much cable would also cover 90,000 square _kilometers_, roughly the size of Indiana or 1% of the US.
Short answer: It's conceivable, but probably not practical.

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

gsgriffin (1195771) | about 2 years ago | (#42220373)

Power from sun = Direct Current, power lines = Alternating Current. Not the same and no help.

Our country made the decision long ago to not pursue DC as our power supply. Power from photovoltaic cells creates a stream of electricity in one direction. The conversion and voltage (very high along power lines) makes it a fun idea, but not practical.

Re:How about lining power wires (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42220811)

Our country made the decision long ago to not pursue DC as our power supply.

Just read this on a DC Breakthrough [nationalgeographic.com] today.

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

Kremmy (793693) | about 2 years ago | (#42221303)

The conversion between AC and DC is such a disgustingly common act that I have a hard time figuring how you can be aware of both of them and yet still consider it an issue.

Re:How about lining power wires (1)

gsgriffin (1195771) | about 2 years ago | (#42221847)

The problem is not converting it, the problem it doing so over and over on millions of miles of power lines...enough to make it of any value. This is not to mention the difficulty of replacing or covering all of the lines and then converting the power to much, much higher voltage A/C when the amperage is very low coming from the pv.

My point wasn't that you can't covert AC to DC and back, the point is that it is not simply putting up a PV cell and plugging it into the power lines. Make sense?

Begley Cloth? (1)

number6x (626555) | about 2 years ago | (#42219359)

Could we weave Begley Cloth now for or planetary colonization efforts?

Call me when it's here (4, Interesting)

wcrowe (94389) | about 2 years ago | (#42219413)

Uh, yeah. Let me guess. It should be on the market in five years, just like every other solar technical wonder.

Re:Call me when it's here (1)

Sephwrath (2467088) | about 2 years ago | (#42219539)

Also I'm currently on your lawn... should I leave maybe?

Re:Call me when it's here (2)

game kid (805301) | about 2 years ago | (#42219567)

Also I'm currently on your lawn... should I leave maybe?

by wcrowe (94389) ...

by Sephwrath (2467088) ...

...probably a good idea.

Re:Call me when it's here (1)

Sephwrath (2467088) | about 2 years ago | (#42221321)

Clearly on this occasion I've been out cliched. Well done sir, I concede.

Re:Call me when it's here (5, Informative)

mcrbids (148650) | about 2 years ago | (#42219627)

Uh, yeah. Let me guess. It should be on the market in five years, just like every other solar technical wonder.

Oh please. If only you knew what was really going on, you'd have trouble breathing. Prices for solar power have dropped so rapidly and so consistently people are calling it "Moore's Law for Solar" [forbes.com] . A quote from the article: Solar modules prices have dropped from $300 per watt in 1956 to $50 per watt in the 1970s to $10 in the 90s to $1.05 a watt today. Just what did you think this should look like?

Approximately half of all the generating capacity last year was from renewable energy sources. [kcet.org] The miracle of having an actually usable smartphone was a pipe dream just 5 years ago. Now, even most poor folks have one.

Today, anybody can afford to board a high speed aircraft and travel at 350 MPH at 40,000 with safety that rivals our living rooms. Think about that. A chair, 40,000 feet in the air, travelling 350 MPH, affordable to nearly everybody, complete with magazines to read, and we mostly complain about the noise.

Sheesh.

Re:Call me when it's here (2)

h4rr4r (612664) | about 2 years ago | (#42219821)

What flys at 350MPH at 40k feet?

Most commercial airliners are closer 600MPH. Mach .83 is what a 777 is rated for an A320 is 0.84.

Re:Call me when it's here (1)

wcrowe (94389) | about 2 years ago | (#42220573)

Fine, come back in five years and show me your solar sport coat. I'll buy you lunch.

Re:Call me when it's here (1)

dinfinity (2300094) | about 2 years ago | (#42220817)

Wow, lunch. You're really putting your money where your mouth is, eh, tough guy?

Re:Call me when it's here (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42221475)

Is that it? You just wave off the advances in solar with a single sentence? Curious to know, did you check out the links? Did you attempt to educate yourself?

Re:Call me when it's here (2)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#42221759)

> Approximately half of all the generating capacity last year was from renewable energy sources. [kcet.org]

Misquote. From the article you linked to,

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), renewable energy projects -- including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass -- made up almost half of all new power generation installations in the U.S. in the first 10 months of 2012. (Emphasis mine.)

That's WAY different from "approximately half of all generating capacity" which would be an orders of magnitude larger number.

Curtains for electricity (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219435)

They could also be woven into curtains to provide electricity for homes, enough perhaps for digital gadgets and some LED lighting.

Re: Or window glass (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219745)

Instead of curtains - why not dope the window glass itself with fibres.

A whole apartment block / office block of windows should be able to output a nice amount of power...

Breathing hazard (1)

chadkennedyonline (1283278) | about 2 years ago | (#42219481)

How is this material any better than wearing a fiberglass t-shirt all day? Sounds pretty itchy - and unhealthy.

Re:Breathing hazard (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 2 years ago | (#42219643)

How is this material any better than wearing a fiberglass t-shirt all day? Sounds pretty itchy - and unhealthy.

Probably because optical fiber != fiberglass.

Re:Breathing hazard (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219661)

A: It will produce electricity to power your device, RTFA.

Re:Breathing hazard (1)

localman57 (1340533) | about 2 years ago | (#42219771)

How is this material any better than wearing a fiberglass t-shirt all day? Sounds pretty itchy - and unhealthy.

That's what I was thinking when I read the summary. When you tell me something is:

-These fibers are thinner than human hair, flexible
, -optical fibers made from glass

That sounds an awful lot like asbestos...another, long, thin fiberous crystal...

Re:Breathing hazard (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42222503)

Glass isn't a crystal. It's, ummm, a glass. The microscopic structure of optical fiber is completely different from asbestos.

Re:Breathing hazard (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42224273)

It's a start for making those t-shirts with which you can fend off lasers equipped sharks.

Paywall access (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219499)

Dear anyone with access to the abstract, does it include any information on efficiency / how much electricity this generates?

Will this generate enough electricity to power my awsome christmas sweater where rudolf's nose lights up?

How much does it generate? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219531)

How much electricity does it generate? Even a small amount is probably a benefit, but it'd still be interesting to know to understand the full implications of this new technology.

Durability (1)

BradleyUffner (103496) | about 2 years ago | (#42219699)

How would something like this hold up under real world use? Clothing is bent and folded, individual fibers are often pinched very tightly and broken. Since electricity requires a closed circuit, wouldn't a break and a fiber render that fiber useless for producing electricity?

I made one of these (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219719)

with a refractive index of -1. Now if I only can remember where I put it.

Wrong use case.... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42219741)

Everyone is speculating about how this could be used in clothing, but I think this is the wrong use case. Clothing has too little sun facing surface area to produce the amounts of electricity to be more useful than existing battery tech.

However, the military uses a lot of cloth in large sun facing swaths. Ever seen a tent city? Tents are the perfect use case for this tech. Large surface areas, can be oriented towards the sun, rarely washed, never ironed, and only folded up for transport or storage. Integrating the solar tech into the fabric instead of an extra add on package would be ideal.

Re:Wrong use case.... (1)

mlts (1038732) | about 2 years ago | (#42220623)

A more mundane use would be things like car or RV covers. Cover the rig, plug the cover into a smart battery charger, walk off.

Even more simple, just something to toss over a roof and fasten into place with double-sided tape (perhaps Velcro.) The result would be useful power, but without sacrificing repairability, other than the added weight.

Re:Wrong use case.... (2)

disambiguated (1147551) | about 2 years ago | (#42221161)

I want a set of sails made from this. Neatly solves a problem with solar panels on a sailboat: half the time they are in the shadow of a sail.

Re:Wrong use case.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42222013)

Hmm. You're thinking 2D flat solar cells. The fibers are 3d so they should provide more flexibility in the orientation choices.

Re:Wrong use case.... (1)

White Flame (1074973) | about 2 years ago | (#42222425)

Clothing has too little sun facing surface area to produce the amounts of electricity to be more useful than existing battery tech.

Not to mention that clothing is bent and rumpled in ways that would break optic fibers, even just in normal wearing.

Re:Wrong use case.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42225383)

Don't forget sails on boat.

Imagine the surface available for photon uptake! (1)

G3ckoG33k (647276) | about 2 years ago | (#42219931)

"These fibers are thinner than human hair, flexible, and yet they produce electricity, just like a normal solar cell."

Imagine the surface available for photon uptake in fleece form! Fleece, as in Helly Hansen - www.google.com/search?q=helly+hansen+fleece

One square meter of standard, plain photocell surface would possibly be multiplied if made into some brushy/hairy type of material.

mod 3oWn (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42220051)

raise or 7ower the were taken over

the masochist vampire in me wants one. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42220085)

Just clip one lead to each nipple before going out at night.

Coming Soon... (1)

N0Man74 (1620447) | about 2 years ago | (#42220113)

Now we can have powered "power ties".

Half and half (1)

deciduousness (755695) | about 2 years ago | (#42220195)

Make half the shirt solar cells and half battery cells. I just want to be able to use this as a nice electric shock to unsuspecting people.

Snag Blackout (1)

snadrus (930168) | about 2 years ago | (#42220309)

Sorry to post late, snag blackout.

Just add a peltier junction hat (1)

SoulSiphon (2783915) | about 2 years ago | (#42220413)

Couple that with a peltier junction and you will have one happy soldier.

Parasols and sunshades! (1)

angel'o'sphere (80593) | about 2 years ago | (#42220873)

Enough said, sounds like a perfect new fiber for those.

HE man - I Have THE POWER (1)

CHRONOSS2008 (1226498) | about 2 years ago | (#42221251)

HE man - I Have THE POWER

Egad, not this again! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42222663)

This is the seventh or eighth invention that was supposed to do this.
Maybe I can use it when I drive my flying car.

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