Solar Fabrics: Ultimate Guide (2021 Update)

When it comes to using a solar panel or similar solar-powered objects, the outcome of what you expect is often limited to what you get. Having a solar panel on your rooftop will provide you with power in various departments of your home, but that cannot be compared to why people need solar today. 

The demand will outweigh the supply in that case. Suppose you have various appliances at home like a hairdryer, cooker, or even a refrigerator. In that case, a solar panel will work well for you, but solar power will come in the form of fabric that we might wear with recent technological developments. 

All that is possible with the introduction of solar cell fabric. That is where we are headed, and sooner or later, you will have it in a store near you.

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What Is A Solar Cell Fabric?

Made from Solar Fabrics
Made from Solar Fabrics

As we all know, conventional solar panels are made of photovoltaic solar cells, either made of glass or materials that can work well outside under the hot scorching sunlight. Most people find the idea of photovoltaic panels not practical when it comes to clothes, which has been an issue of contention for some time now. 

But thanks to the great minds of solar researchers, they have managed to create a solar cell component that is fully functional and flexible and, at the same time, easy to wear. Please take a minute and think about it. That means for fitness lovers, they can track their fitness levels and keep their phones and tablets fully charged throughout.

It is possible using a breathable solar panel that can be inserted in your jacket or shirt. Some of the breathable solar panels can be inserted in your car seats, and as you drive, you can charge your phone, tablet, or even other electronics in your car. Now let us look at the advantages of using solar cell fabrics.

The Main Importance

Let us start by first understanding the technology and science behind how devices can charge using USB cables and try and bring that idea into clothes. Integrating that same idea into clothes that people can wear will be a great calm and convenient for the person who wears that cloth. 

Many people will now wonder if this idea is adopted on a large scale, which will significantly reduce how people use electricity. The idea of solar fabrics will change the way we charge our devices, and most of the issues that come with using grid electricity will be reduced drastically.

The number one challenge that the researchers had when it came to solar fabrics was the solar panel size. How would they fix it into a cloth? Even though it took them many years to reduce the size of the panel so that it could fit into cloth, they managed to shrink it into a tiny piece that could fit on the sleeve of a jacket. 

Getting a micro-sized solar cell that could be used in a breathable cloth was the major problem. All that came to pass in 2017 when the University of Tokyo and research institute RIKEN made the first prototype of fabric that was waterproof and stretchable with an ultra-thin photovoltaic device coated in it.

The ultra-thin PV device film was not only able to be fitted into fabrics, but it also meant that the cloth was able to be washed by a machine.

Many people still depend on other sources of energy like coal, oil, and fossil fuels as their primary source of energy, not thinking of the damage they are causing to the environment when they use such energy sources. What will then happen if all those supplies run out? 

There has been an overflow of people turning into solar energy over the past few decades. That is because they have come to realize the benefits that come with renewable energy. Many have rallied behind using renewable solar power and have bought solar panels, which they have installed on top of their roofs. 

As we all know, the sun is one of the best energy sources and will still be available in the next billions of years to come. This then means that we can harvest solar energy by converting the sun’s rays into electricity with solar panels’ help.

I believe you have seen most of these solar cells stuck on roofs of many homes and in some big swaths in the desert where solar energy is plentiful.

However, solar panels are made of glass, and they are fragile and inflexible. For that reason, there has been plenty of research trying to find ways of planting solar cells into fabric materials, which is much flexible.

In our article, we have only mentioned the portable electronic device, but plenty of other products can be used to convert solar energy into electricity.

Other Uses Available

Let us have a look at a practical example of tents and marquees. A tent can be a solution for those who do not have a house to stay in because it was wiped out by a storm or any other natural disaster like floods and earthquakes. 

The fabric solar cells would work well in such a tent where you get shelter and electricity, and you will avoid using massive generators that would take time to install. If you are in need, you would like your power source to come in a fast and easy way. A power generator could take a long time to set up or even bring it to your location if you are stranded.

Having a solar fabric tent will be the best solution as it is easy to set up, requires less workforce, and can quickly be sent to people in need. All you need to hope for Is that there is sufficient sunlight in that area.

If you want to know where the technology that makes all that possible comes from, you can check the Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom. 

The University’s School of Art and Design research team found out that it was possible to make viable solar cells tiny that could be woven into a fabric or textile. With that idea, they realized that having solar clothes could be done, and it was something genuine rather than just a cool idea. 

The University has managed to make tiny flea sized solar cells which are 3mm by 1.5mm. Even though they are very tiny, the technology inside is of high quality making it a powerhouse. Once it is placed inside a fabric, it is extremely hard for the person wearing the cloth to feel the cells.

The idea of having your phone charged using your cloth is not just imagination anymore. The scientists have made it possible. The simple project that started at Nottingham University has made it possible for someone to charge their smartphone or any Fitbit device using energy directly from the solar cells. 

The solar cells are made with 200 individual cells, which can generate 2.5 to 10 Volts of power and can go up to 80 milliwatts in power. As we have mentioned earlier, the solar fabrics are waterproof, and that is all possible thanks to the lamination of the cells using waterproof resin.

This enables the cloths to survive all kinds of wet weather conditions like heavy downpours and continuous laundry cycles. Another function that the solar cells might have is that instead of charging your smartphone through your cloth.

There has been an idea of having solar cells incorporated on the smartphone screen, and it charges itself. This is something that is already in progress.

What Are Some of The Disadvantages?

Just like anything that is made by man, there should be a downside to it. The very first problem is that the technology is still in its early stages. If we were living in a perfect world, this idea could be out in public, and everyone would have the pleasure of charging their gadgets and smartphones using our clothes every day, all day. 

Unfortunately, that is still not possible, especially when it comes to the technology of micro-sized solar cells. There is still so much to learn and do when it comes to this department. Even though we are getting closer to having a breakthrough, there is still so much to be done before solar fabrics are introduced to the mainstream market. 

But a day will come when you will be able to pick a jacket or a shirt in your local store that is able to charge your phone. Even though in our article, we have mentioned prototypes that sound cool and out of the ordinary, it should be remembered that it is just a prototype, and that is just that.

There is still so much research that needs to be done to make the prototypes a reality, which is possible in the years to come.

What Do Scientists Think?

In an article written in 2006 by Markus B Schubert and Jürgen H Werner of Stuttgart university, they said that finding the perfect amalgamation of attributes is hard.

What that statement means is that when it comes to bringing together all the things that make a cloth, having a cloth that has an iPV solar panel included in it is still an idea and has not yet been found. 

Ensuring that the technology is flexible and functional is still a dream for most of the mass scale. It is still not possible to have it, and until we crack it, then and only then can we see the real attempts of solar fabrics getting into the actual consumer reality.

What Else Should We Consider?

When it comes to implementing this idea, it is not as cheap as you may think. You need to consider the cost of having thousands of solar cells embedded into a cloth or a fabric and considering that you need to have the design of the battery and the ports that connect the fabric physically to charge your device. Where do they all go? 

How large should they be? and if it will affect different parts of your body? And many more questions need to be answered.

The other major issue that needs to be addressed is what about people who live in places where there is not enough sunlight, such as Northern Europe, where it’s freezing due to the winter months, darkness, and weather conditions so depressing.

Let us have an example of Iceland, which usually gets three to four hours of sunlight per day, and darkness starts at 3 pm, especially during winter seasons. In such places, solar-powered shirts and jackets will not be of much use. You will stay warm, but you won’t be able to charge your smartphone, and what sense does that make? 

Researchers have also argued that even for countries that have winter and sunset is reasonable during winter months, the number of sunlight hours will still not be enough, especially for people who work in offices or school environments for most of the day.

So, What Is Being Done to Further the Progress of Solar Cell Fabric and Make It More Reasonable for Everyday Use?

There has been a reduction in the cost of producing and manufacturing solar fabrics, and it will continue to decrease in the coming years. This has allowed more research to be done and allowed more prototypes to be made primarily in the development of other groups of cloths, for example, the multi-billion cloth giant that dominates the high streets.

An excellent example of that goes way back in 2016 when Smithsonian reported how a design and chemistry team was working to develop a solar textile that had all kinds of uses. one example of some of the uses is the tents that we mentioned in our article and other fabrics like car seats and curtains. 

That was three years ago, and right now, as we are writing this article, a lot of progress has been made in that field. There has been significant progress, and many similar prototypes are coming up, which is an example of what is yet to come. Motor giant companies like Toyota have introduced solar-powered to their product to add more range in their Prius line of cars. 

They have included solar panels, which are 27 miles extra, and that only proves one thing, they add more practicality to most road users.

Many researchers found out that solar cells were actually on the horizon and researchers from Fraunhofer in Germany tried it on semi-trailers to produce electricity, which could operate most systems in the trailer using solar cell blinds. 

From that day onwards, news of energy records by solar cells made headlines on BBC News in August 2018. The German researchers mentioned in our article earlier managed to crack up to 27.3% of sunlight conversion.

Before the researchers mentioned in our article, the average sunlight conversion was around 15 to 22%, so there has been a drastic development ever since. 

There is still hope for better things to come if we are to go by the  Perovskite Solar Cells, which has played an essential role in bringing down the price when it comes to using solar energy in general.

Silicone has proved to be expensive, especially when it comes to manufacturing and providing solar energy; Perovskite Solar Cells are much cheaper. They are man-made and flexible enough to be painted on the outside of a building.

Conclusion

There has been a drastic development when it comes to solar cell fabrics, and the point is that solar clothes are becoming more of a fact than fiction. Most researchers are now feeling confident when it comes to producing solar clothes. There are still plenty of obstacles, but we will overcome them before everything comes into reality. 

There have been many questions asked in the past, like how you can incorporate thousands of solar cells I not a single fabric to the durability issue that comes with the cloth. How could you possibly wash such a cloth multiple times without ruining it and the involvement of a battery system and the connection points that allow the cloth to charge? 

All that said, we still have the issue of environmental conservation. We are trying to find an alternative that is far better than fossil fuel but still ideal for everyday consumption. Keep in mind that the cost of solar manufacturing is falling every day and the demand for having solar clothes is on the rise. 

This might as well be the solution to finding important and useful renewable energy. The answer might be in the clothes that we wear to work, parties, occasions, and holiday seasons.

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