The newly developed solar power concentrator is irradiated with blue LED light. The polymer material is so flexible that it can be bent with tweezers. 2020 (Image courtesy Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA))
Solar Powered: By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact
ZURICH, Switzerland, December 31, 2020 (Maximpact.com News) – The once impossible dream of generating useable power by simply wearing clothes has become a reality. Power enough to charge phones, tablets, laptops on the go – this wearable energy supply is made possible by a new polymer applied on fabrics such as jackets and T-shirts, turning them into solar collectors.
Materials that can use indirect or ambient light to generate energy are already being used in the solar industry. Called luminescent solar concentrators, these materials capture diffuse ambient light and transmit its energy to an actual solar cell, which then converts light into electrical energy.
There has been a serious limitation, though. Luminescent solar concentrators have been available only as rigid components, not wearable textiles, as they are neither flexible nor permeable to air and water vapor.
Now a Swiss interdisciplinary research team led by Luciano Boesel from the EMPA Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles in the Zurich suburb of Dubendorf has succeeded in incorporating several luminescent materials into a polymer that provides precisely this flexibility and air permeability.
This new polymer is based on Amphiphilic Polymer Co-Networks (APCN), 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 newly developed solar concentrator is irradiated with blue LED light. The polymer material is so flexible that it can be bent with tweezers. 2020 (Image courtesy Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA))
The special properties of this polymer – permeability to air and water vapor, flexibility and stability – are attractive to the human eye and based on their unique chemical properties.
“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,” explains Boesel. “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.”
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.
The novel solar concentrators can be applied to textile fibers 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.
And, the researchers found to their delight, that just as on large-scale rigid solar collectors, the wearable luminescent materials capture a much wider spectrum of light than is possible with conventional solar photovoltaics.