Like something from a sci-fi film, a team of researchers have found a way to collect solar energy from streetwear that people are literally wearing
With the climate crisis as severe as it is, alternate sources of clean energy have become a key focus for researchers and policy-makers globally. With technology becoming ever more abundant, it is not uncommon to need power for charging devices while on the move.
While solar panels are commonly used to power houses if light is plentiful, how can we collect solar energy with our bodies? The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) have discovered that applying a certain polymer to clothing could mean that our clothes create renewable energy.
Flexible material could collect solar energy
Materials capable of using indirect or ambient light for energy generation are already being used in the solar industry. These materials contain special luminescent materials and are called “Luminescent Solar Concentrators”, or LSC for short. The luminescent materials in the LSC capture diffuse ambient light and transmit its energy to the actual solar cell, which then converts light into electrical energy.
However, LSCs are currently only available as rigid components and are unsuitable for use in textiles because they are neither flexible nor permeable to air and water vapor. An interdisciplinary research team led by Luciano Boesel from the Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles has now succeeded in incorporating several of these luminescent materials into a polymer that provides precisely this flexibility and air permeability.
From contact lenses to clothes
This new material is based on Amphiphilic Polymer Co-Networks, or APCN for short, a polymer that has long been known in research and is already available on the market in the form of silicone-hydrogel contact lenses. The special properties of the polymer are their permeability to air and water vapour as well as flexibility and stability. This is also beneficial to the human eye and are based on special chemical properties.
Luciano Boesel commented:
“The reason we chose exactly this polymer is the fact that we are capable of incorporating two immiscible luminescent materials at the nano scale and let them interact with each other.
“There are, of course, other polymers, in which these materials could be integrated; but this would lead to aggregation, and the production of energy would thus not be possible.”
Novel solar concentrators
In collaboration with colleagues from two other Empa labs, Thin Films and Photovoltaics and Advanced Fibers, Boesel’s team added two different luminescent materials to the gel tissue, turning it into a flexible solar concentrator.
Just as on large-scale (rigid) collectors, the luminescent materials capture a much wider spectrum of light than is possible with conventional photovoltaics. The novel solar concentrators can be applied to textile fibres without the textile becoming brittle and susceptible to cracking or accumulating water vapor in the form of sweat.
Solar concentrators worn on the body offer an immense benefit for the ever-increasing demand for energy, especially for portable devices.