Can you make a power station out of a tarp?

Sheep rest by photovoltaic panels installed at Solarpark Rodenäs in North Friesland, Germany. This might be what you tend to think of when you contemplate solar panels. See more green science pictures.
Bert Bostelmann/Getty Images

Earth is plagued with disasters; hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes hammer our cities and reduce our homes to rubble. In the past, disaster refugees have been forced to live in tents for months, even years, while they struggle to rebuild.

Imagine how different things would be if, instead of just supplying shelter, those same tents provided electricity to power everything from cell phones to radios. If something as simple as a tarp could serve as a power station, that future could become a reality and we'd have solar energy to thank.

To anyone familiar with the solar panels of the past, the possibility that a tarp could turn sunshine into electricity is pretty amazing. Solar panels started off with a reputation for being bulky, expensive and difficult to install, not to mention fragile. For instance, the solar panels scheduled for installation at the White House in 2011 could run about $100,000, and like the solar panels added more than 30 years ago during the Carter administration, they'll be set in massive arrays angled precisely to capture the maximum amount of solar energy [source: Cappiello]. What's more, the rigid panels will be covered with glass to protect the sensitive photovoltaic cells underneath. Clearly, solar panels like the ones at the White House have very little in common with a tarp, but newer, thin-film solar cells are a different story.

Thin-film solar cells are manufactured to be much slimmer, more flexible and more durable than their predecessors. They can be rolled up or folded for transport and then quickly unfurled when needed, making them ideal for military applications or any situation where power outlets are scarce. Often that means remote and even hostile environments. Fortunately, this newer wave of solar cells can take a beating and still work efficiently, even if they've been punctured.

As impressive as these relatively newer solar cells are, they do have drawbacks, such as cost. Like traditional solar panels, they're often manufactured using silicon and, depending on the design, that can get expensive.

That's not the end of the story for slimmer solar cells though.

Solar Cells Everywhere -- Even on Your Tent

A 2kW PowerShade made by PowerFilm. Note the shelter's amorphous-silicon photovoltaic panels integrated directly in the shelter's fabric. One structure could produce about 10 kW per day.
A 2kW PowerShade made by PowerFilm. Note the shelter's amorphous-silicon photovoltaic panels integrated directly in the shelter's fabric. One structure could produce about 10 kW per day.
Image courtesy PowerFilm

In the future, solar cells might not use silicon at all, and they could have some interesting capabilities as a result. Researchers at Wake Forest have developed a solar cell made nearly entirely of plastic. Not only is the new cell cheaper to produce and very efficient at capturing solar energy, it's also flexible enough to be transported in rolls, like the thin-film ones we just talked about.

Taking things even further, researchers from the University of Michigan have found a way to integrate solar cells directly into textiles. These new solar cells employ a different approach for capturing solar energy: They incorporate organic compounds in place of semiconductors. As luck would have it, the organic dyes used on textiles are very similar in structure to those used in organic photocells. By using these dyes to create extremely thin solar cells and then embedding those cells into textiles, the research team has created a photocell with incredible flexibility.

According to Dr. Max Shtein, who leads the University of Michigan research team, everything from coats to tents could be made from these textile-based solar cells. Even better, these new photocells also could be cheaper to produce than those based on silicon. And while they are less efficient at converting solar energy into electricity under ideal conditions, they actually outperform traditional solar cells at capturing diffuse light. All this adds up to a solar cell that's easy to use, flexible, lightweight, affordable and works under all sorts of conditions. In other words, it can do anything a tarp can do and charge your laptop, too.

Wondering when you could get your hands on a solar-powered tent for your next walkabout? If you're a member of the U.S. military, you might be in luck. With fuel convoys being attacked repeatedly in Afghanistan and Iraq, military leaders such as Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus have been pushing successfully to incorporate more renewable technologies into the field. The U.S. Marines has tested solar-powered tents in Afghanistan, and the U.S. Army has tried them out as well, evaluating products such as PowerShade, TEMPER Fly and QUADrant [sources: Osborn, Rosenthal]. So yes, companies are able to make power stations out of tarps.

Keep reading for more links to solar stuff you might like. 

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Bourzac, Katherine. "A Simpler Route to Plastic Solar Cells." Technology Review. June 24, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/25650/
  • Cappiello, Dina. "Here comes the sun: White House to go solar." Yahoo! News. Oct. 5, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101005/ap_on_bi_ge/us_white_house_solar_power
  • DeFreitas, Susan. "Portable Solar Chargers, Explained." Reuters. Nov. 22, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://www.reuters.com/article/idUS223625103520101122
  • Osborn, Chris. "Army evaluating transportable solar-powered tents." Army News Service. Dec. 8, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010)http://www.defencetalk.com/army-evaluating-transportable-solar-powered-tents-30543/
  • Photonics Media. "Fiber-Based Solar Cell Earns Patent." April 12, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=41791
  • Renewable Energy Magazine. "The beginning of an epochal change across all fabric structure industries." Sept. 3, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://www.renewableenergymagazine.com/paginas/Contenidosecciones.asp?ID=15&Cod=5040&Tipo=&Nombre=PV%20solar
  • Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "U.S. Military Orders Less Dependence on Fossil Fuels." The New York Times. Oct. 4, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/science/earth/05fossil.html?_r=1&hp
  • ScienceDaily. "Highly absorbing, flexible solar cells with silicon wire arrays created." Feb. 17, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100216140259.htm
  • Shtein, Max. "Toward textile-based solar cells." SPIE. August 21, 2008. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://spie.org/x27087.xml?ArticleID=x27087
  • Steinberg, Stephanie. "Our energy future: Solar." The Michigan Daily. April 13, 2009. (Dec. 15, 2010) http://www.michigandaily.com/content/2009-04-14/university-invests-solar-energy-works-improve-technology?page=0,0
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