Let’s be honest, solar-powered clothing is rarely easy on the eyes. Nor does it tend to be discreet. Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Xiamen University, however, have developed a flexible, tube-like photovoltaic cell that could potentially be woven into fabric. By coating the surface of carbon fibers with titania-semiconducting nanorods, which appear like bristles on a nanoscale hairbrush, Wenxi Guo and his team have created a novel configuration that captures light from all directions. It’s far from commercial production, of course, but the implications for the fashion industry are electrifying.
Creating nanorod-covered carbon fibers is difficult and time-consuming because of the multiple steps involved. You have to convert titania foil into titanium-dioxide nanorods, for instance, and then arrange the nanorods uniformly along the carbon fibers. Guo and company devised a shortcut: growing the nanostructures directly on the fiber’s surface before chemically “etching” them into bunched arrays. The process doesn’t just require less elbow grease, but it also improves the energy-conversion efficiency of the solar cells—1.28 percent compared with 0.76 percent for the unbunched configuration.
Besides solar cells, this new method could be used to create photocatalysts and lithium-ion batteries.
Besides solar cells, this new method could be used to create photocatalysts and lithium-ion batteries. The structures could also be woven into paper and textiles, although their low efficiency admittedly limits their usefulness. Still, the research is in its salad days yet, which bodes well for future breakthroughs. “We may also plan to do some hybrid work to acquire different sources of energy based on this configuration,” Guo says.