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Researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison to Develop Solar Textiles

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could soon be poised to alter the world of wearable technology with new developments in solar textiles.

The university recently welcomed Marianne Fairbanks as assistant professor to its School of Human Ecology, who is looking to use her decades of experience working with dyes, fibers and design to develop solar textiles at the university.

Fairbanks started working with Trisha Andrew, an assistant professor in chemistry at UW-Madison, who works in energy research.

Andrew combines the fields of chemistry, materials science and electrical engineering to create low-cost, lightweight solar cells. Her most recent innovation is an organic dye-based solar cell deposited onto paper.

Fairbanks and Andrew’s collaboration overcomes a manufacturing challenge which Andrew said is slowing the rollout of cheap, consumer-friendly solar cells, specifically the early integration of technologies emerging with actual manufacturing processes.

“There’s no one out there, there’s no designer working with a device person trying to do this — that’s us — and that’s what really excites me about this project even today,” Andrew said.

A grant funded by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and awarded by UW-Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education is helping to support the pair.

“The idea of building solar cells on fabric is potentially transformative,” Andrew said. “If we take this technology to grow devices on material, then we could talk wearable technology, as well as solar curtains, solar umbrellas, solar tents, or applications for the military.”

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Science and engineering graduate student, Lushuai Zhang is assisting in one of their projects by using vapor phase chemistry to coat various fabric weave types and structures with a polymer that helps increase its conductivity at least 10 times. Once the fabric is coated, it will act as the bottom electrode. Next, Zhang deposits two different dyes and a top electrode, making up four deposits and creating a complete solar cell.

Then, Fairbanks thought of another idea. Since the four layers don’t need to be placed down in order and there only needs to be the right contact between them, she could try creating a spool of thread for each of the components. If she could weave these threads together, two electrodes and two dyes, this would also create the contact points necessary for a fully functional cell.

“I thought that was brilliant,” Andrew added. “I never would’ve thought of that. If we could literally weave together a solar cell: mind blowing. We’re really integrating each step of the process, on the textile side, on the device side.”

By this time next year, Fairbanks and Andrew want to have created a prototype using the coating technique and also develop proof of the idea Andrew calls “our harebrained weaving idea.”

UW-Madison said either innovation could lead to more collaborations between the pair toward creating usable and maybe even wearable technologies in the future.