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An international team of scientists have developed the world’s first fiber-optic solar cell. Thinner than the width of a human hair and scalable to many meters in length, the silicon-based wire opens the possibility of a new generation of flexible fabrics capable of converting solar radiation into direct-current electricity. The group’s findings, which were published in the December 6 issue of Advanced Materials, expand upon earlier attempts to combine optical fibers with electronic chips. Although many attempts have been made to integrate photovoltaic technology into clothing, traditional components tend to be rigid and unyielding.
Led by John Badding, a professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, the group found a way to build a new kind of optical fiber with its own integrated electronics, eliminating the need for additional chips. The secret lay in high-pressure chemistry techniques, which allowed the scientists to deposit semiconducting materials directly, layer by layer, into tiny holes in the optical fibers.
Long, fiber-based solar cells can be woven into fabric with power-generating, chemical-sensing, or biomedical properties.
Those same techniques led team members to craft a fiber out of crystalline-silicone semiconductor materials that can function as a solar cell. “Our goal is to extend high-performance electronic and solar-cell function to longer lengths and to more flexible forms,” Badding explains. Although his group has successfully produce meters-long fibers, their goal is to create bendable solar cells over 10 meters—that’s 32 feet—in length.
“Long, fiber-based solar cells give us the potential to do something we couldn’t really do before,” he says. “We can take the silicon fibers and weave them together into a fabric with a wide range of applications such as power-generation, battery-charging, chemical-sensing, and biomedical devices.”
Another advantage of their technology? Team members believe that the flexibility of their material would make it possible to collect light energy at different angles. “A typical solar cell has only one flat surface,” Badding says. “But a flexible, curved solar-cell fabric would not be as dependent upon where the light is coming from or where the sun is in the horizon and the time of day.”
Looks like the term “power suit” is about to get a brand new meaning.