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Flexible semiconductor woven together to make ‘solar fabric’

In the near future, fashion might not just involve eye-catching ways to display your personal sense of style but to provide a personal supply of clean energy.

Solar powered fabric, which could catch the rays of the sun and convert it into power, would allow for a wide array of solar power techniques – such as solar clothing. The trick would be to somehow make solar cells that are extremely flexible and light-weight.

A team of chemists, physicist and engineers led by John Badding, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, has developed a fiber made out of crystalline silicon – a common semiconductor material used in solar photovoltaics – that can function as a solar cell.

“Our goal is to extend high-performance electronic and solar-cell function to longer lengths and to more flexible forms,” said Mr. Badding. A solar cell is usually made from a glass or plastic substrate into which semiconductor material has been deposited. These solar cells are flat and heavy with very little flexibility.

While this may be okay for utility-scale energy generating applications, it does not work for smaller applications such as portable electronics.

The solar fiber is also created by depositing semiconductor materials onto a surface but this surface is optical fiber. Thinner than human hair, the fiber’s surface is filled with tiny holes. The semiconducting material is deposited into these tiny holes directly, layer by layer, using high pressure chemistry techniques.

These fibers are light-weight and retain their flexibility. They can be woven into a fabric for a semiconducting material that can be used to generate power in a variety of applications such as power generation, battery charging, chemical sensing and biomedical devices.

The team has already created bendable silicon solar-cell fibers of over 10 meters in length. The material could then be connected to electronic devices to power them and charge their batteries.

“Woven, fiber-based solar cells would be lightweight, flexible configurations that are portable, foldable and even wearable,” said Mr. Badding.

The flexibility of the solar-fabric also gives it another advantage over conventional silicon solar cells as it would allow for the collection of light at various angles.

“A typical solar cell has only one flat surface. But a flexible, curved solar-cell fabric would not be a dependent upon where the light is coming from or there the sun is in the horizon and the time of day,” said Mr. Badding.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Penn State's Materials Research Institute Nano Fabrication Network, and the United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. – EcoSeed Staff

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