Fashionable Solar Clothing is Closer Than You Think

Two creative and remarkable professors at the University of Wisconsin have developed solar clothing: wearable solar panels that can be woven right into the threads of the fabric of our clothes.

Marianne Fairbanks, professor of Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Human Ecology, calls herself a “textiles nerd.” She is an artist, an educator, and an innovator. She has just applied for a patent, along with her colleague, assistant chemistry professor Trisha Andrew, for a remarkable solar fabric.

Chemistry and Art Collaborate

Andrew’s research in the chemistry department centers on organic dyes that can conduct electricity in electronic devices. One of her more recent and promising projects involves a type of solar cell made up of organic dyes deposited onto a paper backing. Fairbanks first made contact with Andrew after finding her in the results of a Google search for solar research being done at the University of Wisconsin. She’d had the idea for solar fabrics for quite some time, but needed help with some of the technical details.

Paper isn’t all that different from fabric, and Fairbanks excitedly approached Andrew with the idea of integrating her conducting organic dye technology into flexible, wearable fabrics that could be used in anything from suit jackets to tents. The result of their collaboration is a wearable fabric that integrates energy-capturing fibers that can collect enough solar power to keep the small portable electronics in your pockets fully charged.

Unlike some other wearable solar technology on the market, the solar charging in these new textiles would occur at the fabric level – there would be no need for anything that remotely resembles a traditional solar panel to be integrated into your coat. It’s stealth solar.

You can buy solar backpacks today from several retailers. In fact, almost a decade ago, Fairbanks herself co-founded a small business named Noon Solar, producing high-end purses and messenger bags with integrated flexible solar panels.

solar clothing

Bags like those will work well to keep your laptop fully charged while you walk around, but they look like solar-powered bags, with shiny rectangles of solar photovoltaic panels taking up much of the back or top of the fabric and limiting the design. They’re lighter than the kind of solar panels you’d put on your roof, of course, and they’re innovative and practical. But it’s a stretch to call them fashionable.

Solar Clothing Beyond the Backpack

The applications for Fairbanks’ and Andrews’ technology are nearly limitless. There’s no information available yet about just how heavy the fabric is, how delicately it needs to be treated, and how much power it’s able to collect through its solar dyes, but the fabrics could conceivably be produced in different colors and patterns, and be used in anything from military uniforms to beach umbrellas to sweatshirts.

Photo credit: Backpack, Hannu Makarainen via Flickr under CC license

  • by Jen MacCormack
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  • July 13, 2016