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Researchers band together for solar fabric

You thought neon pants went out in the '70s? U.S. and Swiss scientists want to develop a fabric that can produce electric power.

In a new twist on the concept of the power suit, solar energy start-up Konarka has linked up with a Swiss scientific institute to develop a woven fabric that can harvest energy from the sun.

The overall goal of the project is to develop, in about a year, a functional textile constructed out of fibers with photovoltaic, or solar-energy, properties. Ultimately, the fabric could be used to create tents with interior lights or pants and backpacks that could charge cell phones.

The goal is to create a fabric with a 4 percent efficiency, meaning it could turn 4 percent of the sunlight hitting it into electric power. The rigid silicon solar panels on top of some downtown buildings are much more efficient, but they're impractical for many installations.

Konarka and others have developed flexible solar cells that can be used to wrap buildings or even coat bolts of cloth. The new project differs in that the solar harvesting capabilities would be woven into the material, ideally allowing the fabric to behave more like normal fabric.

Konarka has demonstrated a photovoltaic fiber, but so far no one has come up with a complete woven fabric, the company said. The company, founded by Nobel Prize winner Alan Heeger, is slated to deliver its first products--flexible solar cells made of sheets of plastic--soon. The cells will be incorporated into foldable pads for recharging electronic devices.

The institute working on the project, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, is one of Europe's leading centers for nanotechnology. The EPFL team is led by Jan-Anders Manson. He served as the scientific director on the EPFL-Alinghi Project, which designed the yacht that won the 2003 America's Cup.

The project is expected to take a year and is being funded by the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation.