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Imagine wearing a jacket or rucksack that charges up your mobile phone while you take a walk. Or a tent whose flysheet charges batteries all day so campers can have light all night. Or a roll-out plastic sheet you can place on a car's rear window shelf to power a child's DVD player.
Such applications could soon become a reality thanks to a light, flexible solar panel that is a little thicker than photographic film and can easily be applied to everyday fabrics. The thin, bendy solar panels, which could be on the market within three years, are the fruit of a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar (H-AS).
Kroesen's team has made its solar cells bendy simply by making them thin. But this has involved a trade-off. While the best solar cells are now working at efficiencies above 20%, the H-AS cells are only about 7% efficient. The researchers think efficiency is worth sacrificing for a cell that is going to be more generally useful, though they still hope eventually to reach 10% efficiency.