Jul 12, 2017 - 5min read
At a time when the cost of solar technologies is lower than it has ever been – and continuing to fall – it’s no surprise that their use is becoming increasingly varied and innovative.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, there is effectively an infinite supply of solar energy (at least 5 billion years worth) – and it’s free to anyone who invests in the technology necessary to harvest it.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at 7 instances of manufacturers, inventors and designers who have harnessed solar power in particularly effective or unusual ways.
Citizen Eco-Drive watches
There are many solar-powered timepieces on the market, but Citizen has embraced and incorporated the concepts of renewable generation into their watches more cohesively than anyone else.
Their Eco-Drive system – launched in 1995 – eliminates the need for batteries by harvesting natural and artificial light, and has a host of energy-saving features that enable watches to run for up to 6 months without light (on a full charge). For example, when an Eco-Drive watch is low on charge, the second hand will slow to ticking at 2 second intervals in order to conserve power.
An excellent example of technology maximising efficiency to minimise waste, Citizen estimated in 2007 that their Eco-Drive series had eliminated the need for (and disposal of) approximately 10 million batteries in North America.
Pauline van Dongen’s solar-powered fashion
Image credit: Pauline van Dongen
Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen’s designs are avant garde both in their sense of style and in their incorporation of solar technology. By weaving circuitry and solar cells into the fabric of her clothing, van Dongen creates a portable method of charging electronic devices that is both eye-catching and sustainable.
Image credit: Pauline van Dongen
Her 2016 solar-powered windbreaker is made from upcycled denim yarn and incorporates jauntily-angled solar panels into its front, storing the energy they gather in a power bank hidden in the jacket’s lining. Designed for tour guides of the Dutch Wadden Sea Centre, it allows them to charge electronic devices during extended periods away from the mainland.
Voltaic’s solar-powered backpack
Image credit: Voltaic Systems
Voltaic is a manufacturer specialising in solar panels for charging electronic devices on the go, and their Array Solar Backpack presents a beefier power proposition than van Dongen’s undeniably dazzling designs.
Solar panels cover almost the entire rear side of the rucksack, boasting a considerable 10 watts of power output. One and a half hours in the sun provides enough energy to charge the average smartphone, while 11 hours is enough to charge a laptop.
A rugged energy solution that enables travellers to keep their devices in play while cut off from civilisation, this technology provides us with a modern and sustainable way of exploring our environment.
Glasgow University’s solar-powered skin
Image credit: University of Glasgow
Researchers at the University of Glasgow School of Engineering – led by Dr Ravinder Dahiya – have developed a synthetic skin for prosthetic limbs that can generate its own solar power.
Previously, synthetic skin made from graphene needed a built-in battery to operate its sensors, but the new breakthrough incorporates photovoltaic cells into a graphene skin that allows 98% of the light striking its surface to pass through and reach the solar cells.
The renewable energy generated is what enables the skin to take incredibly sensitive measurements of pressure, temperature and texture.
The Unseen’s solar-powered hair dye
Okay, this one is cheating a bit – it’s not technically solar powered. However, the FIRE hair dye from science-inflected fashion brand The Unseen reacts to changes in temperature – which could conceivably be caused by exposure to the sun.
The firm’s founder, Lauren Bowker, is known as ‘The Alchemist’ in fashion circles due to her philosophy of merging chemistry with design – always with the intention of creating fashion that reacts to and sometimes even comments on its environment. Bowker’s university project was a jacket that changed colour from yellow to black based on the presence of carbon emissions in the surrounding air.
See the FIRE hair dye in action.
Qatar’s solar-powered hard-hat
Qatar’s rush to complete stadiums after winning the 2022 World Cup has been dogged by accusations surrounding the abuse of migrant workers’ rights.
One concession to lessening the strain on labourers comes in the form of uniquely-conceived headgear designed to reduce the risk of heat stroke to workers toiling in the stifling summer heat.
The innovative hard hat from the University of Qatar’s College of Engineering uses solar power to drive a fan that blows air over a cooling pack contained within the helmet. The air is then blown over the wearer’s face, which it’s claimed can reduce skin temperature by up to 10 degrees celsius.
Image credit: Google
In 2015, Google was awarded a patent for a solar powered contact lens. Little has been heard about it since, but in 2014 Google had announced they were developing a contact lens that would measure glucose content in the tears of diabetics.
The patent for a solar powered contact lens opens up a wider range of possibilities for continual measurement of users’ biological data – for example helping keep track of internal body temperature, allergic reactions and blood alcohol content.
A solar wearable so tiny and integrated into the user’s daily life invites us to speculate even further, however. Could it ultimately become the optical equivalent of a smartwatch – bringing us into closer harmony with our electronic devices than ever thought possible (and closer, maybe, than many would desire)? A step towards a bionically augmented reality? An entirely new way of seeing the world?
What’s clear from all these examples is that solar technology is taking us into a future filled with opportunities for utilising one of our most abundant resources – and that by embracing solar power we are moving towards a more mutually beneficial relationship with our environment.
Sign up to a brighter future.