Photo: Aalto University, Anne Kinnunen

The fibre material, the textile structure, the density, the colour and the type of post-treatment influence the optical properties of textiles. In principle, they can be designed to transmit sunlight. If a corresponding fabric is then placed on commercially available solar cells, the resulting module can generate energy. The advantage: no batteries need to be charged or replaced in wearables because the product can generate the energy it needs to operate itself. By using light as a renewable energy source, it becomes energy-autonomous, which works not only with sunlight but also with artificial light.

As part of the Sun-powered Textiles project at Finland’s Aalto University, a textile collection has now been designed and developed that is not only suitable for generating energy, but also – for aesthetic reasons – hides the integrated solar cell behind the textile. This allows greater design freedom and still produces enough electricity to power wearables. Small rigid cells made of monocrystalline silicon and larger flexible cells made of amorphous silicon are used to generate electricity. The rigid cells have a higher efficiency and are particularly suitable for outdoor use. The flexible cells, on the other hand, work better in low light, such as indoors. Because they are thinner and more elastic, they can be attached to the fabric of a jacket, for example, without reducing comfort. The working prototype, a sample jacket, contains a temperature and humidity sensor that is powered by the integrated solar cells.

The energy harvesting module formed from textiles and cells can be widely used for smart textiles and wearable technology solutions, e.g. workwear, sportswear, wellness and fashion. Smartphones cannot be charged with the integrated cells, but sensors can, for example, count temperature, humidity, altitude or the user’s steps. Since the cells were laminated between two fabrics that are covered on both sides with a waterproof thermoplastic film, the textiles can even be washed. In tests, the small rigid cells withstood 50 washes at 40°C in a washing machine. The results with the flexible cells are also promising.

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