Aimed at a future in which power sockets are obsolete for charging mobile electronics, the researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) developed the polymer for integration into jackets, T-shirts and other clothes.
Materials capable of using indirect or ambient light for energy generation are already being used in the solar industry. These materials contain special luminescent materials and are known as luminescent solar concentrators (LSC). The luminescent materials capture diffuse ambient light and transmit its energy to solar cells, which convert light into electrical energy.
Until now, however, LSCs have only been available as rigid components. They were unsuitable for use in textiles because they were not flexible or permeable to air and water vapour.
The Empa team, led by Luciano Boesel at the Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles, incorporated several of the luminescent materials into a polymer that provides flexibility and air permeability.
The new material is based on amphiphilic polymer co-networks (APCN), a polymer that has long been known in research and is already available on the market in silicone-hydrogel contact lenses.
“The reason we chose exactly this polymer is the fact that we are capable of incorporating two immiscible [incapable of being mixed together] luminescent materials at the nano-scale and letting them interact with each other. There are, of course, other polymers in which these materials could be integrated, but this would lead to aggregation, and the production of energy would thus not be possible,” said Boesel.
Working with colleagues from two other Empa labs, Thin Films and Photovoltaics and Advanced Fibres, Boesel's team added two different luminescent materials to the gel tissue, turning it into a flexible solar concentrator. Just as on large-scale rigid collectors, the luminescent materials capture a much wider spectrum of light than is possible with conventional photovoltaics.
The novel solar concentrators can reportedly be applied to textile fibres without the textile becoming brittle and susceptible to cracking or accumulating water vapour in the form of sweat. “Solar concentrators worn on the body offer an immense benefit for the ever-increasing demand for energy, especially for portable devices,” a research announcement said.
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