Solar-powered Fabric Charges Phones on the Trail

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When every ounce on the trail counts, outdoor adventurers dream about ditching batteries. They might not have to wait. Designers at Colorado State University are developing solar-powered clothes from natural fibers that can charge a number of devices, including phones, tablets and GPS units.

Professor Eulanda Sanders and associate professor Ajoy Sarkar in CSU's department of design and merchandising, as well as four of their students, are making prototypes for solar-charging apparel that can be worn while biking, snowboarding, skiing or hiking.

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Clothing with solar panels has been developed before, but these duds usually rely on petroleum-based materials rather than natural fibers. A prime example is California-based Silvrlining's GO Solar Power Collection, which puts solar power into microsuede sportswear. While certainly cool-looking, the director's jacket costs $1,180.

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Instead, Sanders and Sarkar want to produce clothes from cotton and linen that are safe and strong enough to handle the elements. According to the university, the group was able to modify natural materials to make them more durable. From there, they incorporated flexible solar panels within the apparel.

Their goal with these greener clothes is ultimately to make solar clothing that's not only comfortable and cool looking but also highly functional and easy to clean. Definitely an admirable idea, but one that I can see will also prove fairly challenging to execute — especially if they want it to be affordable.

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With help from a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the CSU group has already made several prototype jackets and a vest. This weekend, that apparel will go on display at the EPA's National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. The team has also entered a sustainable design competition there, competing with entries from across the nation. Winning means a shot at taking their solar clothing to the market.

Photo: Colorado State University student Anna Rieder incorporates solar panels into a winter jacket. Credit: Colorado State University Creative Services.