Editorial Feature

Wearable Technology: Incorporating Solar Panels into Clothing

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In recent years, multifunctional portable electronic gadgets have flooded the commercial technology market. This technological trend is now influencing the clothing industry, with many manufacturers choosing to implement solar panels into the designs of their clothes in order to allow people to charge electronic devices such as their mobile phones, tablets or GPS devices using sunlight.

How Does Solar Clothing Work?

Solar clothing uses photovoltaic cells in order to harness the sun’s energy and use their to power electronic gadgets.  Photovoltaic cells are made from semiconductor materials, such as silicon, which have the ability to conduct electricity under some conditions but not others.

When a small packet of light, known as a photon, hits the surface of the photovoltaic cell a discreet amount of its energy is absorbed and transferred to the semiconducting material.

This energy ‘knocks’ an electron loose allowing it to flow freely within the semiconductor, thus creating an electrical current.

Form Meets Function

Recent technological advancements in solar cell research have allowed their size to be reduced to such an extent that they can now be easily sewn onto items of clothing without appearing bulky.

Christiaan Holland, head of the Dutch creative agency Gelderland Valoriseert, recently teamed up with solar panel expert Gertjan Jongerden in order to create a clothing line which combines functionality and style. The team created a stunning futuristic solar coat which is made from wool and leather.

This coat has several flaps which open at the shoulders and waist to reveal 48 hidden solar cells on flexible panels. Although the power generated by the solar panels has to be immediately transferred to an external gadget, when the flaps are exposed to direct sunlight a mobile phone can be fully charged within two hours using only solar energy.

Silvr Lining, a green clothing company based in Los Angeles, have recently created an innovative wearable solar powered clothing line which includes jackets, vests and cargo pants. These items of clothing boldly display book-sized solar panels which are incorporated into different materials. Silvr Lining’s solar clothing range has the capacity to charge a variety of electronic gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones.

The Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University are currently trying to create flexible solar powered clothes, which are both very comfortable to wear and durable, using natural fibres such as cotton and linen.

It is hoped that their clothing will be able to charge phones, tablets and GPS units, with the final pieces aimed at people who enjoy outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding or hiking.

The Future of Solar Clothing

Currently in order for solar clothing to function at an optimal level, direct exposure to sunlight is required for very long periods, which may expose the wearer to problems such as sunburn or heat stroke. Other problems with currently available solar clothing include their lack of an energy storage facility, their bulky nature and the fact that they are difficult to wash.

Although solar powered jackets, sportswear and t-shirts are all currently commercially available, the cost of the technology required to produce these products needs to drastically drop in price before solar clothing will be ubiquitous on the high street.  

References and Further Reading

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