Top Tech: Solar Blankets

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Flexible solar blanket of aSi solar cells.  (photo provided by the Naval Research Laboratory)

Flexible solar blanket of aSi solar cells. (photo provided by the Naval Research Laboratory)

Technology: High Power Flexible Solar Blankets
Agency: Naval Research Laboratory

What is better than a warm blanket on a cold night?  How about a blanket that can produce energy by soaking up rays from the sun?  We’re talking about the Naval Research Laboratory’s high power flexible solar blankets (or Blanket 2.0 I like to call it).  The common comforter is getting an upgrade.

What is it?

It’s like a blanket on solar steroids.  NRL is developing photovoltaics (solar cells) that combine high power output with lightweight and flexibility.  It works by using crystalline, high efficiency multi-junction solar cells, which are lifted off the growth substrate and laid down onto a lightweight, flexible blankets.  This forms a blanket with potentially three TIMES the power output of current technologies.

What does that mean?

This is, essentially, how we create portable solar panels.

Think about some of the advantages this blanket can have, starting with convenience.  Being able to transport a regenerating power source that doesn’t weigh a ton is awesome.  Also, given the particular environment with which troops tend to find themselves, using the natural resource of the sun just makes sense.  It’s also eco-friendly, which means these blankets are in keeping with the Department of Defense’s going green initiative.  They’re also more cost effective, since they’re designed to be used over and over again and they can recharge equipment in the field.

Truthfully, people in general could benefit from this technology.

If I could keep a solar panel in my wallet that would allow me the opportunity to charge equipment when I was out and about I would keep half a dozen of them on hand at all times.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Let’s take a look at what this blanket does.  Moreover, how it really works.

What does it do?

Producing high powered solar blankets will enable man-portable power that will displace battery weight for the dismounted soldier.  Basically, it’s a faster, lighter way to carry around power, and if you think that’s not a big deal then you’ve never carried an 80+ lb rucksack for miles in the blistering heat.

The concept comes from commercial solar blankets, which are based on thin-film technologies that are inherently low efficiencies.

For space applications, solar cells with efficiencies approaching 35% are being developed.  These are inverted metamorphic (IMM) triple junction (3J) solar cells, and these are being developed in a manner that renders the active solar cell material as a thin membrane which can be laid down onto a flexible substrate.  This breakthrough solar cell technology now enables the simultaneous attainment of high w/kg and W/m2 in a flexible array.

To capitalize on this, the space solar technology must be adapted for terrestrial applications, which entails adapting the internal solar cell structure for the terrestrial solar spectrum.  In addition, the solar array technology must be developed to form a flexible blanket.  This requires development of interconnecting schemes and laminating methods to form a blanket that is rugged and robust.

How can this help? 

Mobile solar power being tested by Marines during a Limited Objective Experiment.  (Photo courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory)

Mobile solar power being tested by Marines during a Limited Objective Experiment. (Photo courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory)

Taking some of the weight of the backs of service members for the sake of fuel-efficiency is not to be taken lightly, if you will.

NRL seeks to exploit the marked advantages of the IMM 3J technology to produce small scale power technologies that can easily and rapidly be scaled up to meet larger power requirements.  This technology has direct and positive spin off commercial applications to increase the availability of electrical power in remote locations.  It can also reduce dependence upon fossil fuels, concurrent dependence upon fossil fuels and concurrent risks to troops convoying such fuel.

My take?

I think the future is saturated in green technology.

NRL says that, when this reaches full scale production, it will lead to a large growth in “green” employment.  Being able to use a readily-available fuel source – and channel it to fulfill the needs of our troops – is one of those “where’s the bad part?” ideas I enjoy so much.  It could very well make life easier and missions more efficient.  This kind of technology is something that has been a long time coming.  I know I’ve said that before, but it’s true.  Any type of technology that can make military missions easier and more effective is something that that needs to be explored.  Especially ideas that end up saving money in the process.

Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time a military-designed application hit the streets of everyday America.  The GPS found its way out of the military and into the civilian sector, and now I wouldn’t leave home without my indifferent-sounding guidancebot.  It would be nice if you could take a solar blanket with you and soak up some rechargeable rays on the go.

What’s good for the military goose is often good for the civilian gander, as they say (or as no one says, since that was my awkward wording).

It’s about time our blankets started working for us, don’t you think?

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Want to learn more?  Click here for more information on this technology!

Are you interested more federal inventions? The Naval Research Laboratory has a broad portfolio of technologies that are available for commercialization. Visit their official website to learn more!

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Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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