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something new under the sun

Solar power’s not just for roofs anymore: It’s being woven into fabric.

Soon, everything from sneakers to beach umbrellas could suck up the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity.

Marianne Fairbanks, a fabric designer, and Trisha Andrew, an organic chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, teamed up to make solar fabric — first invented 15 years ago — a little bit sleeker. They created a layer of polymer-coated fabric that absorbs light and conducts electricity, and can be applied to any type of textile. A four-by-four foot swath of cloth can generate enough power to charge a smartphone.

“I get really excited, because textiles are portable and lightweight,” Fairbanks told Smithsonian. “They could be deployed in the wilderness for a hunter or in the field for medical or military applications in a way that big clunky solar panels never could be.” The duo is working on creating marketable solar-powered products like gloves, tents, and other outdoor gear.

Meanwhile, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology recently developed a different wool textile that harvests wind and solar energy. Who knew the renewable energy fabric industry was so competitive?