Imagine: Shirts and jackets capable of harvesting solar power. Your iPhone might never run out of juice again (just plug it into your vest). Such scenarios might become reality sooner than you think. Researchers from Northwestern University have created a new type of solar cell capable of bending — and, conceivably, being integrated into fabric. Here's what you should know:
How do traditional solar panels work?
Light enters a transparent cell, and thanks to a complicated process in which the sun's photons travel through a semiconductor, electricity comes out. This photovoltaic cell technology hasn't progressed much since solar cells were invented in the 1880s, according to Dave Collier at Earth Times. That's largely due to a limited supply of the necessary materials (namely, indium tin oxide). "If solar technology really becomes widespread, as everyone hopes it will, we will likely have a crisis in the supply of indium," says Mark C. Hersam, the professor who headed the Northwestern study.
What about these new solar panels?
They use carbon, which the earth has in abundance. Hersam and his colleagues were able to create a viable alternative to indium by stitching together tiny carbon nanotubes. An added benefit: Compared to "mechanically brittle" indium, carbon nanotubes are actually quite flexible, granting the new cells versatility the old solar cells never had.
And I can wear these new solar panels?
Potentially, yes. United Press International says that military personnel could build the technology into tents to power their gear. And for the rest of us, "the cells could be integrated into clothing, backpacks, or purses for wearable electronics."