Solar Clothing | Innovations and Future Fashion

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The idea of wearing a jacket that powers your cell phone might seem like something from a movie, but innovations in solar technology and fashion could make this possible.

Like other e-textiles, solar clothing and accessories could become commonplace in the future thanks to today's research and development.

What Is Solar Fabric?

Today, innovators are working to improve existing solar technology to make it thinner and lighter in weight for integration into the fabric we wear. To understand what solar fabric is and how it will work to power solar clothing, you have to understand solar power and its history.

The First Generation of Solar Cells

Solar cells have experienced three generations of design. The first generation started in 1954 and used crystalline silicon, a material still used in 90% of today's solar cells. These early types used two forms of silicon in layers to generate power. The top layer, n-silicon, is crystalline silicon treated with antimony, arsenic, or phosphorous. 

The lower layer, made of p-silicon, uses boron for its treatment. These first-generation cells still remain in use today because they operate with more efficiency than slimmer models from later generations.

crystalline silicon solar cells

The Second Generation

Second-generation solar cells put the cells onto flexible materials, such as plastic backing. This innovation brought the possibility of integrating solar power into fabrics. Thin-film solar cells of the second generation measure up to 100 times thinner than first-generation models.

Though many still use silicon to produce energy, some types are using other materials for generating electricity. Sadly, the drawback of these cells is also their advantage. The thinner nature of second-generation cells makes them less efficient than the first generation cells.

The Third Generation

The third generation of solar cells represents current innovations in the field. This generation takes the best of second and first-generation cells to improve efficiency while using alternatives to silicon. Organic photovoltaics fall into this group.

Solar clothing will likely use organic solar cells or similar options that producers can either weave into the material, or print using specialty inks. In fact, a group of scientists created an ultra-thin, flexible organic photovoltaic (OPV) cell that offers 10% efficiency (similar to that of second-generation cells).

These OPV also have high stability in heat, letting them withstand the hot-melt process to integrate them into fabrics.

How Do Solar Cells Work?

Electricity occurs from a movement of electrons. Solar cells work to capture the sun's light and use it to excite electrons in the cells to create power.

The first generation of solar cells use a dual-layer of silicon to capture moving electrons. Sunlight sends packets of light called photons to the solar cell. These pass through the top n-silicon layer to the p-silicon beneath. Energy from the photons leaves in the lower layer, which electrons in the p-silicon layer absorb. The extra energy in these electrons cause them to move up to the n-silicon layer to the power circuit.

Solar cells in second generations work in similar manners but instead may use amorphous silicon instead of layers of the crystalline form. Other materials include copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) or cadmium-telluride (Cd-Te). These materials offer only efficiencies of up to 12% and 11%, respectively. Compare that to first-generation cells that may achieve up to 20% efficiency.

Because third-generation cells continue to progress in their development, they have varying methods of operation. However, they may reach efficiencies of up to 30% or more. Realistically, the OPV innovation of bringing efficiency up to 10% from 1% is more likely.

Of course, when applied to solar clothing, the cells must be ultra-thin, flexible, and durable enough for regular wear and washing. Thanks to current research and innovations, you might find yourself wearing solar clothing at some point in the future.

What's the Difference Among Solar Fabric, Solar Clothing, and Solar Fashion?

When considering solar clothing and how photovoltaic cells could improve it, you must understand the subtle differences among fabric, fashion, and clothing.

Solar fabric is flexible material that includes solar cells. This could include second-generation solar cells on a flexible backing, like plastics. This type of material has use as power for temporary shelters like tents or integration into bags and backpacks.

tent using solar panel

Solar fashion uses fabric to create accessories and clothing. Fashions such as purses, backpacks, and jackets all fall under the category of solar fashion. However, only jackets are clothing.

Wearable clothing makes up the last group of solar clothing. This sector proves the most difficult for solar power to integrate with. While solar fashion accessories like bags need a flexible backing for the photovoltaic cells, they don't need to stand up to washing or dry cleaning. Solar clothing must have extra durability, a comfortable feel, and appealing look to make people want to wear it.

Uses of Solar Clothing and Solar Fabric Today

Today, solar clothing remains a futuristic feat, typically only seen on runways and in museums. However, many applications exist in the form of solar fashion, especially accessories. Phone cases and bags with photovoltaics are among the existing solar fashion applications of this technology. A working prototype in 2013 even turned an entire dress into a solar-absorbing power generator.

Solar fabrics have more uses in non-clothing applications. For instance, the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army have tested tents made of flexible fabric with integrated solar cells. Over time, this military-grade technology could trickle down to the public to make charging cell phones or a laptop while camping.

Some designers have taken to creating solar fashion. In 2014, Tommy Hilfiger produced an exclusive jacket for the holiday season that could charge a cell phone in the pocket. Unfortunately, this innovation only appeared for a brief time and had visible photovoltaic cells covering the back.  

With innovations in fabrics, solar clothing will likely take cues from solar fashion to become more effective and fashionable.

Solar Fashion Today and Tomorrow

Solar fashion today typically includes accessories, like bags. However, future applications of solar fashion will likely blend into functional clothing. Solar clothing that allows users to charge phones, like the Tommy Hilfiger jacket, could become more fashionable and affordable as time progresses.

Designers have already proven that solar clothing and solar fashion are possible from a functional standpoint. The future holds better designs, smaller solar cells, better integration, and lower costs of this technology. Combinations with other technologies or manufacturing processes like biofabrication might also eventually come to pass.