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More Solar

sprayonsolar.jpgOne of the ideas underlying the Bright Green Future is the greater use of radically distributed energy generation. Although this has the most visible manifestation in the development of (for example) micro-wind turbines and gas-optional hybrids as mobile power sources, one of the more intriguing applications will be the greater integration of energy generation materials into the construction of objects and buildings. Although there will undoubtedly be a variety of intrinsic power generation technologies (such as the suspended-load power backpack), the most commonplace form will be integrated photovoltaics.

Widespread adoption of integrated solar power is still a few years off, but this last week saw a two developments bringing that day much closer.

Konarka, a pioneer in polymer photovoltaics (solar cells made of flexible plastics instead of silicon sheets and glass), has teamed up with Textronics, a company specializing in "electronic textiles" to begin the production of photovoltaic cloth. This material could be used in bags and upholstery, but is said to be soft end flexible enough to go into clothing, as well. The companies argue that this pv-embedded textile would be easily used for charging portable electronic devices, but it seems to me that another obvious application would be in making the bags or jackets themselves "smart," able to (for example) sense the air and display air quality reports, keep an electronic eye out for open WiFi networks (with a tag that glows brighter as the signal gets stronger), even intercept incoming phone calls or text messages and display relevant information about the message.

Potentially more radical is the work by researchers at the Technical University at Delft's Sustainable Energy program concerning spray-on solar. We've talked about spray-on solar before; the idea that any material object could have a photovoltaic layer is an exciting one, as it opens up the possibility of being able to reuse existing products rather than having to make entirely new objects.

The Delft research, published in the September 14 issue of Nano Letters, concerns an improved compound of materials going into the spray-on solar. Previous spray-on methods relied upon organic photovoltaics, which have a limited lifespan, usually just a few years. According to Technology Research News, the Delft method uses

...a mix of copper indium sulfide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles sandwiched between a thin film of titanium dioxide and a layer of titanium dioxide nanocrystals. The copper indium sulfide nanoparticles absorb sunlight and the titanium dioxide nanoparticles convert photons to electrons.

This compound should have a longer usable life than the organic spray-on technologies, and should lower the cost of spray-on solar "significantly." Most importantly, the Delft pv has efficiencies of 5%. While a fraction of standard silicon-glass photovoltaic efficiency, it's close to double than the 2-3% usually found in spray-on organic solar methods. The Delft team argue that, once turned into a marketable process, the resulting cost per kilowatt would be "competitive" with other power generation methods.

As with all lab breakthroughs, of course, it remains to be seen how well the process translates to commercial applications. But both the Delft research and the Konarka-Textronics announcement demonstrate that we're getting closer to a world where the potential for energy production is an important part of the design of material products. Products that make their own power, or include the ability to make power for other products, could well trigger a new world of sustainable design.

Comments (11)

Benjamin Farahmand:

It seems to me that this technology would work well with robotics and the future with self-sufficient robots.

So how long until this technology becomes inexpensive enough for the common household?

Benjamin Farahmand:

It seems to me that this technology would work well with robotics and the future with self-sufficient robots.

So how long until this technology becomes inexpensive enough for the common household?

Mark Waddle:

Although wearing electrically active clothing doesn't appeal to me considering the possible effects of EM radiation continually so close to my body, the possibility of increased photovoltaics in exterior building materials and even window curtains is an exciting idea.


Hmm, photovoltaics don't really generate any EM radiation, although they do absorb it.

I remember having a conversation with Ed Mlavsky (spelling?) who was a VP at Tyco Mobil where they had just started producing ribbons of silicon crystal. We were standing on the train platform in Lincoln, MA and it was 1975 or so. Mlavsky told me that they would have cheap solar cells on the market within three to five years.

From laboratory to market takes at least that three to five years and probably longer. Don't hold your breath.


Oh for these materials to be in our common residential roofing materials.


How long would it take, and how much would it cost to replace all the energy we currently get from oil, plus 'economic growth' with such fanciful 'solutions'? Oh, and what about all the physical goods we derive from fossil fuels, such as our food, supported by artificial fertilizers made from natural gas... Seems this is another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into. A mess not even a reptile brained war could ever get us out of. Our overpopulation rose on fossil fuels, and will decline with them. Get ready for the fall, this isn't going to be pretty.

logspirit: You make some interesting points, however organic (aka sustainable) farming practices do not rely on fossil fuel by-products for fertilizers and the like. Granted, it still takes energy to run the tractors and other equipment, however those could be fueled by bio-fuels.

Also, vegetarianism takes far fewer resources/energy, and is generally a healthier diet for humans anyhow.


We dont have to worry about meat and veg. Frankenmeat and franketveg will handle the needed tasks just fine. Hydrogen and biodeisel will handle most transportation fuel needs just fine... that and coal liquids anfd shale/oilsand squeezings will handle most of the rest.

Everything else will be either pure eletric or some other inventive workaround.

Where none of that works.. well foot power has been in action for as long as people had feet and its dirt cheap.

GMO’s will prove to be an environmental disaster. Their “promise” is over hyped and they will not deliver as the money interests backing them have promised.

Fortunately they are not needed at all to feed the population. The food problem is not one of production, but rather distribution.

Raising animals for food requires/consumes energy, water and grains. If any of these come into short supply, reducing or eliminating meat from the diet could be used as a conservation measure.

“Although wearing electrically active clothing doesn't appeal to me considering the possible effects of EM radiation continually so close to my body”

EM radiation from electrical sources are generally associated with alternating current (AC); solar cells produce direct current (DC). In short, the AC produces ever changing magnetic fields, whereas DC produces a standing magnetic field.

While the effects of magnetism on the body are still hotly debated, the greater concern – currently – seems to be over constantly changing fields as opposed to standing fields. Of course this is not to say that in the future, the concern might not shift as new knowledge is acquired.

Do you carry a cell phone? It is often carried next to one’s body and is a constant source of microwave radiation, even when just in stand-by mode. There is probably much more to be concerned about in carrying a cell phone next to one’s body than in actually wearing a DC power source. Same goes for using wireless networking on your computer (or just being in a wireless hot zone), or using Blue Tooth devices.


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