Collaboration Aims for Woven Solar PV Fabrics

The relatively recent advent of thin-film polymer solar photovoltaics opened up many new uses and new markets for solar energy. The same could be possible through a new partnership aiming for the commercialization of woven, photovoltaic fabrics which could create their own electric energy.

The international collaboration, known as the Photovoltaic Fibers and Textiles Based on Nanotechnology program, is the result of a new partnership between the Massachusetts-based solar upstart Konarka Technologies and Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). The two expect to yield the first fully integrated woven photovoltaic (PV) material. Such material will allow for tighter integration of power generation capabilities into devices, systems and structures beyond what they say is possible with polymer thin films. “Photovoltaic textiles could positively increase the number of applications available to solar technology by extending integration to objects made from fabrics, such as garments, tents or coverings,” said Daniel Patrick McGahn, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Konarka. “We’ll be able to offer to the marketplace practical new products, such as wearable power generation for mobile electronics made from the solar fabric.” As part of its ongoing research and development activities, Konarka has already demonstrated it can produce a working PV fiber. To weave a fabric, Konarka and EPFL will optimize the strength, thickness and electrical performance of the PV fiber. In addition, the team will work to interweave fibers so as to maximize the performance of the textile without compromising the fibers’ integrity. The goal is to produce a fabric sample with at least a four percent efficiency rating. Typical polymer, or plastic-based, thin film PV has an efficiency of approximately 8 percent. “This unique solar fabric represents a leap forward for photovoltaic technology,” said Russell Gaudiana, Konarka’s vice president of research and development. “It will enable power generation capabilities to be woven in rather than applied. For example, we’re able to incorporate our light-activated power plastic onto tenting materials, such as canvas or nylon. Using the fiber, the tent’s base material becomes photovoltaic.” The consumer market may not exactly be in a hurry to buy PV tents, but the U.S. military just might. The military has taken a recent interest in portable solar PV power as a means to power their increasingly high-tech ground divisions while lowering their needs for a liquid fuel infrastructure. Already numerous contracts have explored the use of PV tents but the approach has been focused largely on the application of thin film sheets over tent and building structures (See Iowa Thin-Films photograph above). A woven PV tent, however, would represent a completely new direction for this application. The EPFL team is led by Dr. Jan-Anders Manson, the director of the Laboratory of Composite and Polymer Technology, who is well known for his work as the scientific coordinator for the EPFL-Alinghi Project, which designed the yacht that won the 2003 Americas Cup. The undertaking is expected to last one year and is funded by the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI). CTI promotes the rapid conversion of state-of-the-art laboratory findings to marketable products through cooperation between educational institutions and industry. This new endeavor further deepens Konarka’s close relationship with the university. In 2002, Konarka became the first company in the United States to license Dr. Michael Gratzel’s dye-sensitized solar cell technology, which augmented its own intellectual property. Since then, Dr. Gratzel has served as a senior scientific advisor to the Company, helping it to commercialize its light-activated plastic power.
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