We hear a lot about the Elon Musks of the world – what makes them tick, how they see the future of clean technology and what they would do about it. But, what’s perhaps not very well known is how much of what gets built into these new products and new markets owes its start to government funding and policies.
Today, I want to walk through the way innovative new technology moves from the research laboratory to the market via government.
A fascinating study was published in Nature Communications about integrating “solar ribbons” into fabric so that in the future our clothes could harvest sunlight and store energy to power phones, health sensors or any other device. The scientists said that this research was inspired by the movie “Back to the Future” – but it needed a lot of cool technology to come together to actually make the prototype work. First – how can energy be harvested in a thin, flexible form? Enter the perovskite solar cell- a technology with several years of basic research behind it. Second, how can the energy be stored and transferred in a small enough area that it can be used in clothes? Enter carbon nanotubes – nanotechnology has been studied and funded for a couple of decades now and technology based on it began entering the market in the last decade.
The “solar ribbon” built by the scientists in this study has a solar cell on one side, a supercapacitor to store energy on the other side and both are linked with a copper ribbon for electron transfer. The solar cell is a perovskite solar cell – a thin-film solar cell made of lead or tin instead of silicon, with efficiencies of about 22%. The supercapacitor is prepared with copper hydroxide nanotubes combined with polyvinyl alcohol on a copper ribbon. Using the copper ribbon as the base, the scientists placed the thin film solar cell on one side and the capacitor on the other side and then wove the ribbon into fabric on a small tabletop loom.
These solar ribbons are classic IoT or internet of things devices – they can be used for multiple purposes and the researchers were able to build a prototype that showed that the research has the potential to become a commercial product.
So once the first step has been made – basic scientific research to what looks like a viable product that people can use, how does it get to be something that a business can be built around?
In this case, the US Department of Energy started looking at how IoT can be used to accelerate clean energy adoption. There’s a whole new program called the Office of Technology Transitions, that provides funding to commercialize promising new technology in energy generation and use. The solar ribbon work would fit well into this kind of program – and the funding would enable the technology to move from the prototype to perhaps a single factory building these solar ribbons. Maybe these ribbons catch the eye of a big retailer like Nike or Adidas and get integrated into their products. Either way, this initial grant from the government could help the scientists work with business to start getting the technology out into the market. Growing the market, building other partnerships – those are things that the government won’t support – but what these kinds of government programs do is allow the inventors to move the products from small systems in the laboratory to something that will work on a large scale. They give the inventors the space and the time to discover what is needed to produce the technology on a larger scale, how effective it is and if there is a market need for it.
Of course, as part of making it a commercial product all kinds of other factors come in. And some of those are what could make this product an interesting combination of clean tech and data science– how is the product going to be connected to other devices? Would you need a single operating system or interface between several? How is the data collected and used? Can these systems be recycled and reused? Is that something that can be built into the product right from the beginning?
We don’t have it just yet, but maybe in a few years time, we will all be wearing clothes that can power our cell phones, keep artificial hearts and other medical devices running and send data about where to best harvest energy on any given day.