What Is Solar Cell Fabric And How Does It Work?

Tim Hamlin
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What is solar cell fabric?

Solar cell fabric is an interesting technology that has so many different applications. Essentially, it is like a very thin photovoltaic panel made from textile material.

Solar cell fabric is made out of special materials and as the result, it is very durable, light in weight, and flexible.

This is what makes it so popular nowadays in terms of renewable energy supply. It can be integrated into so many different products, buildings, and structures.

Solar cells made from these textile materials can change the whole renewable energy industry by making solar energy more affordable.

It’s been used for solar shade sails, blinds, and shades. It’s also can be used for tents, backpacks, and various other outdoor gear.

Solar cell fabric can be used as the wrapping of appliances, computers, and other electronic devices. It can be used for marine sails or even transport vehicles.

What are the main benefits?

The possibilities for these solar cell fabrics are really quite endless.

One of the first ones that come to mind is a car charger. The battery in your vehicle wears out over time, even if you maintain it.

Some cars may even perform better on a fully charged battery than a weak or old one.

As the years progress, the battery costs more and more to charge, as it has more wear and tear.

This leads to a higher maintenance cost and sometimes it’s cheaper to replace the entire thing.

However, with a solar cell fabric charger, you can keep your options open and avoid replacing the entire battery altogether.

This is also a great way to charge your phones and smaller electronics without having to worry about outlets. All you need is some sun.

Like I said, the list of possibilities is endless and you’ll see more and more of these products hit the market in the upcoming years as it becomes more affordable and mainstream.

When shopping for these solar cell fabrics, make sure that you look for a reputable brand and one that offers a warranty on their products.

What other uses are there?

Solar cell fabric can shield electronic devices from radio waves, protect satellites from high radiation, and in turn, extension the longevity of the instruments, so they can continue to provide data that helps us understand our galaxy, solar system, and beyond.

Warmth generated by solar panels is always being lost when the panels are out in the cold. When the panels are facing toward the sun, this effect generates more heat and helps generate more power. However, when the panels are shaded, or when they're in shadow, that heat is trapped into the panel. The fabric has synthetic fibers embedded inside that allow heat to pass through and bleed back into open space.

The fabric is applied to one side of the panel. Thin strips of insulation are between each of the embedded synthetic fibers. When the fabric is applied to the panel, the vacuum-sealing begins. This is done through the application of heat and pressure. The synthetic fibers fuse to the panel because of this process. The insulation strips and fabric seal to the panel, so that the heat from the panel can't escape.

Some solar panels are designed with the fabric built into the panel from the beginning.

Typically, the total coverage of the fabric is between 15% and 20%.

The fabric makes sure that the solar panels take full advantage of sunlight and heat, even in less than optimal weather.

But what about the bad stuff?

Like with all materials, there’s both good and bad to consider. Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about solar cell fabrics.

May Require More Maintenance than Other Fabrics

While there’s nothing wrong with a more involved time management routine, it’s important to ask yourself how much time you have to dedicate to your tent. It’s also vital to weigh whether or not the amount of time saving outweighs the amount of time lost in the upkeep of the fabric.

With solar energy coming through solar cell fabrics, it’s likely that you’ll spend more time caring for your tent.

There’s a few ways you could handle this. One is to get a panel to put on the outside of the tent where it can get good exposure to the sun. It should be pointed toward the sun’s area of the sky, if possible, to ensure optimal sun exposure.

What do the scientists say?

The product is the collaborative effort of researchers at the University of Colorado Denver, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Massachusetts. It's intended for use in clothing, tents, sock liners and sleeping bags. The result is part of a growing field called flexible electronics and could have applications for wearable technologies and sensor technology, as well as softer more comfortable wearable medical devices.

"We were inspired by Mother Nature," says Chunlei Guo, one of the UUMASS team members. "In our bodies, a large amount of heat is dissipated by conduction through skin, which is very effective and highly efficient." That's where the butterfly's fuzzy, hairlike scales come into play.

The team's inspiration came from the scales on the wings of the Morpho butterfly, a native of South America (pictured) that features loosely packed cone-shaped scales, or lamellae, that form the wings' distinctive colour patterns.

These are not the regular scales butterflies are famous for. "Those scales bend like a rigid plate," Guo says in a news release. "The Morpho butterfly scales are soft, like a spring, so air flows through in different directions depending on pressure changes that arrive from turbulence in the atmosphere."

What else should be considered?

A solar cell fabric is essentially a thin sheet or fabric composed of many tiny solar cells. These solar cells are originally created in lab and are made by layering semiconductor materials on top of each other and creating a photoelectric effect.

This way, the fabric can harvest solar energy. Before solar cell fabrics were made, solar energy needed to be harvested by using heavy and bulky solar panels. These solar panels were able to gather small amounts of energy, but they couldn’t efficiently transfer that energy.

The material also had a limited lifespan and could be easily broken down by sun or water. This is why solar cell fabrics are a game changer in the industry.

These fabrics are made of various materials and can be used for various applications. They are able to absorb solar energy harnessed in small amounts and can be used for energy efficient clothing, reusable bags, and even window coverings.

The solar fabric is being tested by many entrepreneurs around the world. Even in places where the sun doesn’t shine, they are discovering ways to harvest solar energy. This is a promising technology to find innovative ways to produce clean renewable power for the future.

So, what’s being done to further progress solar cell fabric and make it more practical for everyday use?

The solar industry is growing dang fast, yet the idea of solar cells being used en masse is still a long way off. It’s not a matter of whether there’s a place for flexible solar cells in our development, but whether engineered solar cells are the best solution.

Able to be woven into sturdy fabrics, solar cells have the advantage of being able to take a beating! Yeah, look in your closet. You've got a ton of stuff made from sturdy fabrics that you wear every day, and if solar cells are as durable, then they can be as practical for day-to-day use as your jeans.

There are a few hurdles that solar cell fabric will have to clear, though. Some of the concerns include durability, solar conversion efficiency, thickness, and cost. Those aren't a big deal to Tod T. Woods, a researcher affiliated with Harvard, whose team developed the technology you see below.

Woods is planning on developing a solar cell that can be made using conventional inks that would be used for printing. His team then plans on using the solar cells to print flexible displays for advertising.

In conclusion…

Solar Cell Fabric is a product in its infancy, but with grand potential. Research has been done with the military using clothes made of the material and claims are that every article worn could generate 3.5 watts of electricity. That seems like a lot of power until you consider that in 2009, the average home used about 30 kWh of electricity per day.

Solar-cell fabric is broken down into two types. The first is wearable, which could be described as the equivalent of solar-powered clothing. The second is thin-film photovoltaic cells that you can use to coat surfaces.

Acknowledgments

First and foremost I would like to thank my wife and my little girl. They are my joy and have endured my long hours and endless work on this project.

To my parents who helped me build the foundations of my education, my engineering books as a child and my flight to the sun, the only thing that's missing is the "travel bug".

To my friends and people I would like to acknowledge for their contribution to this book, they indeed made a difference.