Solar powered clothing has its challenges, but high potential in the outdoor industry

SNEWS headed to Colorado State University to check out a student project to develop a test line of natural-fiber apparel with built-in solar panels that charge portable electronics. Read on to learn about the project's achievements, challenges and future possibilities for the outdoor industry.

A few weeks ago SNEWS highlighted a story about a group of Colorado State University students developing a test line of natural-fiber apparel with built-in solar panels that can charge portable electronics.

It’s technology of interest to the industry, with outdoor consumers increasingly bringing their electronics into the outdoors and having a growing environmental consciousness.

To find out more and see the technology in person, SNEWS headed up to Fort Collins, Colo. (about an hour north of our headquarters in Boulder). There we met up with CSU Design and Merchandising Professor Eulanda Sanders, who is working with Professor Ajoy Sarkar and four students on the project.

The effort began with a $15,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and a challenge for researchers and students to come up with new ideas on how to reduce pollution.

The CSU students, Logan Garey, Anna Rieder, Jared Blumentritt and Eric Gauck, targeted apparel on two fronts. One, they wanted to figure out a way to comfortably add and integrate solar panels into the clothing; and two, they wanted to make natural-fiber clothing (such as cotton or linen) as technical as synthetic petroleum-based textiles with UV ray protection and moisture-wicking properties.

“We’re looking at fabrics that are more sustainable but can be worn out in the sun longer,” Rieder told SNEWS. After all, if people are going to be generating solar power from their clothes, their skin would be need to be well-protected from the sun. The students treated the cotton and linen fabrics with a UV absorber, providing a wearer with sun protection about 40 percent longer than with normal fabrics, she said.

Adding the solar panels to the clothing proved to be the most challenging aspect of the project, the students said. Hurdles included finding a technology comfortable and flexible enough for clothing, integrating the wiring and electronics, finding where best to place the panels, and protecting them from the elements.

They scoured the Internet to find flexible panels, then went to work on where best to place them.

“Since we had the outdoor market in mind, the back and shoulders were out of play assuming someone was wearing a pack,” Garey told SNEWS. The students settled on placing the panels on the sleeves and sections on the front side of the apparel, and upon the hoods of jackets. They also designed helmets with incorporated solar panels.

Garey’s name might ring a bell for those in the industry. The CSU Apparel, Design and Merchandising senior partook in Project OR at Summer Market 2011, garnering the People’s Choice Award for a woman’s outdoor casual top he designed during the nonstop 48-hour student competition.

Another realization during the project was that the solar panels would have to be removable for two reasons, Blumentritt said. First, so people could wash the apparel, and second, so people could replace the technology sustainably without having to buy an entire new garment. The students designed waterproof plastic sleeves to house the solar panels.

The electrical wiring challenges were left to Gauck, a CSU civil engineer, who said he used steel thread to run the panels down to a converter (about the size the size of a deck of playing cards). The converter resides in an inside pocket and can be plugged into a phone, MP3 player or GPS.

After just one school year, the students admit there are many hurdles that remain, but they see their project as another step toward more electric clothing in the industry. They are working with CSU to patent some of their findings, and keep an eye out for any new technologies that could help advance their efforts. One such advancement comes from MIT, where researchers have developed solar cells that can be printed on fabrics.

“Technology is here to stay.” Garey said. “There are a lot of people that like to go off the beaten path, but still want to be connected to their electronics.”

Electronic apparel will most certainly have a role in the future outdoor apparel, said Lindsay Vincent, director of race and resort product at Boulder-based Spyder Active Sports. Vincent, a CSU graduate, acted as third-party consultant to the project, giving students a sounding board from someone within the industry.

As solar cells get lighter, more flexible and efficient, designers will be tasked, just like the students, to incorporate the technology into designs, Vincent told SNEWS. “You just can’t slap solar panels onto a jacket. I think we’ll see a lot more creative shapes and incorporation into the seams.”

Vincent said there’s also opportunity to tap other industries where employees spend a majority of their time outdoors, such as the military and construction services.

“We’ve already seen electronics being incorporated into outdoor gear with attached volume adjusters and heated apparel, she said. “Generating the power from the clothing is the next step.”

--David Clucas