Solar Powered Clothing – Practical or Not?


How many times have we found ourselves out and about, decide to make a phone call and then realize, to our dismay, that the phone battery is almost, or completely, dead? Remembering to plug in a cell phone for charging is often easy to do and can, in some extreme circumstances, prevent a disaster. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to charge a cell phone wherever we happen to be, without needing to carry around spare batteries, chargers and cables? Fortunately, it is possible with solar powered clothing, but is it practical?

What is solar powered clothing?

Solar powered clothing, often built with a special solar cell fabric, is a type of fabric material that has been embedded with photovoltaic cells that produce electricity when they are exposed to a light source which is usually the sun. Since traditional solar cells are expensive to manufacture, and can be fragile and rigid, research into their use in producing solar powered clothing has all but come to a standstill. Newer thin-film cells, however, are being developed that can be produced much more efficiently and had a reduced cost. They also have the added advantage of being flexible due to the fact that they are organic polymer based instead of using the traditional silicon. Because of this, great strides have been made in the area of wearable solar fabric that can produce enough power to charge a cell phone, MP3 player or other small device. There are many examples already on the market or in the early stages of design.

How does it work?Konarka Power Plastic Flexible Solar

Solar cells, which are commonly found in homes and buildings, convert sunlight to usable power by absorbing the sun’s rays and transferring electrons to a bank of batteries, or in the case of a wearable power source, an external charger or device. Because this system relies heavily on sunlight, there are some definite drawbacks. Primarily, the device will work only during the daylight hours, and only when the solar cells have direct access to the sun’s rays. Most systems rely on charging and storing enough energy while the sun is out to work when it is not out.

Is it Practical, or Not?

wearable solar cellWhether wearing a solar powered item of clothing to charge a device is actually practical or not remains to be seen, but there is definitely a large amount of interest in the concept. For personal use, having a shirt or jacket that can transform the sun’s rays into a usable power source has some great potential, especially for those who spend a lot of time outdoors and away from home. Unfortunately for most of us who work and play primarily indoors, solar powered clothing wouldn’t even get enough access to the sun to charge, let alone be practical. Solar powered clothing also has more implications than just personal use. For example, the United States military is currently working on solar powered uniforms that would, theoretically, enable a soldier to keep a radio, GPS device or other electronic gadget constantly charged while in the field. While they haven’t actually produced a working option, this is definitely a practical application for solar powered clothing.

Visual appeal of Solar Powered Clothing

As of now the technology is still too new to be implemented into an article of clothing that actually looks great. The newer solar cells, while being smaller and more flexible, still add some bulk to the fabric and, since the cells must be visible in order to be able to collect the energy from the sun, make for a cluttered looking piece of clothing. But like all things tech, it is still a work in progress and eventually we will have solar powered clothing that is functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.