A small piece of fabric that collects energy may make going solar a whole lot cheaper, and much more efficient, making powering your home cheaper and greener.
David Carroll is a nanotechnologist from Wake Forest University who has used carbon nanotubes to make a fabric that can convert heat and movement into electricity.
Carroll explained to Business Insider about the vast potential this simple fabric will have. Carroll foresees it sewn into smartphone cases, wrapped around appliances (and entire homes), and worn in clothing, where it can power medical devices.
Power felt’s versatility (it can collect energy from both heat and movement) and it’s cheapness (t only costs about a quarter to cover a laptop) mean it could be a great addition to any power-using appliance.
The material would allow people to charge mobile phones by leaving them in the sun or on top of a heating grate, instead of having to look for an electrical outlet.
The fabric can also be used together with other renewable energy sources to minimize costs and maximise output — for example bundling power felt with cheap solar cells.
Here’s our lightly edited discussion with him about the idea.
Business Insider: Could this compete with solar cells as a green energy source?
David Carroll: It really depends on how one does the adding. On a head to head basis, thermoelectrics cannot collect as much power as a solar cell. Solar cells are more efficient at converting the power over to electricity.
Unfortunately, solar cells can only tap into a small amount of the power around them. A solar cell can only look at the sun.
If there is no sun, then the thermoelectric is going to do a whole lot better. Even when there is no sun, there is usually heat. The idea is not to replace but to supplement.
BI: How could this work with solar cells to power a house?
DC: Let’s take a silicon solar cell, and let’s say that solar cell captures 12% of available solar energy. That’s not a very good cell, but let’s say you’re a cheap son-of-a-gun like I am and you are only gonna buy the cheap ones. And I put the panel on my roof.
Even though it can’t capture and convert all the sunlight, it is getting hot from the sun. So let’s say I put my thermoelectric fabric on the back of it. I don’t want it to put it directly in contact everywhere, it also collects power if it flutters in the wind. So it hangs down a little bit so it can flutter.
I can use it to collect heat, it can collect energy from the breeze that goes by like a windmill, and I can collect solar.
We have built combined modules like this and show that using relatively ordinary and easy to deal with devices, like 12% efficient solar cells and power felt, which is cheap, one can achieve 30% efficiency, which is hugely bigger than anything that is out there right now.
[The theoretical limit of solar cells is 33.7% efficiency. Most commercially available cells fall well below that.]
Moreover, that efficiency then slates into real power for you because you get it more over the day. After all the wind doesn’t stop blowing at night. So I can continue to get the wind power I can continue to get the heat power, and so I spread out when generate the power.
The key has always been to make it so that it is compact. Because I don’t want to put too much stuff on my roof. And the nice thing about power felt is that it is lightweight and compact, which makes it different from other heavier thermoelectrics made from ceramics.
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