According to the website her most recent innovation is an organic dye-based solar cell deposited onto paper.
Fairbanks comes from the art studio and Andrew the chemistry lab, but the two women had an instant rapport. Fairbanks, who arrived at their first meeting with a stack of textiles, got Andrew thinking about fabric and, by the end of the encounter, the collaboration had begun.
"The idea of building solar cells on fabric is potentially transformative," Andrew says. "If we take this technology to grow devices on material, then we could talk wearable technology, as well as solar curtains, solar umbrellas, solar tents, or applications for the military."
Though Fairbanks and Andrew are not the first to conceive of solar textiles, their collaboration overcomes a manufacturing challenge that Andrew says is slowing the rollout of cheap, consumer-friendly solar cells, namely the early integration of technologies emerging from the lab with actual manufacturing processes.
With a recent grant funded by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and awarded by UW-Madison's Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, Fairbanks and Andrew have begun experimenting with different ways to create solar textiles.
One project has materials science and engineering graduate student Lushuai Zhang using vapor phase chemistry to coat different fabric weave types and structures with a polymer that increases its conductivity. Once the weave is at least 10 times more conductive than it was before coating, the fabric will act as the bottom electrode on which Zhang will deposit two different dyes and a top electrode — the contact between the four deposits making up a complete and functional solar cell.
A second idea grew from Fairbanks' knowledge of weaving. Since the four layers of a dye-based solar cell actually don't need to be placed down in sequence - the point being only to create the right contact between the four components - Fairbanks suggested they try creating a spool of thread for each of the components. If Fairbanks could then weave those threads together, two electrodes and two dyes, the weave's cross-sections would also create the contact points necessary for a fully functional device.
By this time next year, Fairbanks and Andrew hope to have developed a prototype using the coating technique as well as proof of concept for what Andrew affectionately calls "our harebrained weaving idea." Either technique could mean many more years of translating their different disciplinary languages to each other for the purpose of creating usable, even wearable, technologies. (SH)
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