Recent apparel graduate Kathryn Kaalberg, left, and engineering student Shannon Roth, right, work on developing a hiking jacket that uses solar energy to charge electronic devices. Photos by Ryan Riley.

Students to showcase jacket with solar panels that charge electronics

An Iowa State University team of apparel and engineering students will next week showcase a hiking jacket that uses solar energy to charge electronic devices at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C.

Six graduate and undergraduate students — Kathryn Kaalberg, Mashud Alam, and Chanmi “Gloria” Hwang in apparel, merchandising, and design; along with Shannon Roth, Nicholaus Steffensmeier, and Samuel Vande Loo in engineering — will compete in the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition. The contest aims to inspire college students to design solutions for a sustainable future.

“This jacket is a big deal because it integrates technology into an everyday wearable product,” said Roth, a senior in mechanical engineering. “Currently, almost everyone travels with something (phone, camera, GPS, etc.) that requires a charge. This is a product that will allow any of these devices to be charged on the go when outside.”

This year, the National Sustainable Design Expo takes place at the 2017 TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo, being held May 14 to 17.

Developing a prototype

Accessories such as backpacks and hats incorporating solar panels are currently sold on the market, but there are few such garments, said Kaalberg, a recent graduate in apparel, merchandising, and design who presented the research as her honors poster presentation.

The technology has the potential of lessening the use of alkaline batteries and tapping into renewable energy to meet consumers’ everyday needs.

2017-ISU-TechConnect-World-Innovation-Conference-Expo-content-2“It does have possibilities not only for the consumer market, but also for first responders and service industries,” said Eulanda Sanders, the Donna R. Danielson Professor in Textiles and Clothing who’s one of five faculty advisers to the team. “If you are out there anyplace in the world where you don’t have regular electricity or you have to carry heavy batteries, we can harness energy from the sun and people can carry that power with them to keep devices charged. It could be really, really useful to the world.”

The prototype that will be presented at the expo is a red-and-black unisex jacket made of more than 40 pieces of fabric. It incorporates nine water-resistant solar panels of varying sizes, each producing a different amount of energy. Embedded into the jacket are two small boxes: One with a portable battery pack that will be charged by the sunlight, and one with a USB port to power an electronic device.

“We split the portable battery pack and USB port up in two separate components that are about equal weight,” said Steffensmeier, a senior in aerospace engineering. “That way, since they’re split up, you won’t have a weird weight in one pocket. You’ll be balanced.”

Nearly 100 textile tests

Months of research went into the prototype. Iowa State students met with focus groups of those who might wear a jacket for recreational hiking to see what people carry with them while hiking, and what qualities they like and dislike about the jacket they currently wear. Most wanted versatility and functionality.

“If you’re hiking in Iowa in early spring/late fall — more for cooler, wet climates — the people that we talked to in our focus groups wore a lightweight jacket,” Kaalberg said. “We tried to work with the lightest but sturdiest natural fiber we could. That’s also why the jacket has zippers in the side seams because it opens for ventilation. We felt like recreational hiker was more of a general consumer market.”

The project is unique because it is believed to be the first to test the durability of flexible solar panels in garments, to ensure that it will be a feasible product for consumers. Students conducted nearly 100 textile tests on the fabric — digitally printed with a design that contains pictures of solar panels — for its durability and comfort, and to see whether the flexible solar panels could be washed. The panels were also tested for operability and power capacity.

“We wanted to focus on if the garment with solar panels can be washed or if it’s durable enough, if it’s comfortable,” said Alam, a graduate student in apparel, events, and hospitality management. “We conducted a series of tests on the fibers and the fabrics. We also tested different types of solar panels. After that, we came to the conclusion of what kind of panels we’re going to use in the final prototype.”

Expertise from apparel and engineering

(Front row, l-r): Chunhui Xiang, Shannon Roth, Kathryn Kaalberg, Fatma Baytar. (Back row, l-r): Ellen McKinney, Nicholaus Steffensmeier, Eulanda Sanders, Ran Dai, Mashud Alam.

The interdisciplinary team required negotiations by both sides.

Engineering students and faculty brought expertise on the technology being used to create a hiking jacket with solar panels, while apparel students and faculty brought expertise about the jacket’s durability and aesthetics, so it doesn’t look like a walking solar panel.

“A lot of the learning was understanding where their focus is and how they think, and how that differs from where my initial focus and my thought process goes,” Kaalberg said. “And how to combine the two and make sure that all of the numbers and things that they were spinning off make some sense to me, so we can interpret that into the jacket properly.”

Students were advised by five faculty members: Sanders, Ellen McKinney, Fatma Baytar, and Chunhui Xiang in apparel, merchandising, and design; and Ran Dai from aerospace engineering.

Dai brings expertise in solar-powered robots. Meanwhile, apparel faculty are members of Iowa State’s technical design and product development team. Sanders specializes in integrating solar panels into garments to power small, removable electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and GPS units.

Should the Iowa State students convince scientific judges that their green process for textiles deserves to move on to the next level, they would receive additional funding to continue the project into the implementation stage. That would include testing the technology in a range of garments with a variety of consumers, both male and female. The team is expected to be notified by late this summer.