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ISU Team Takes Jacket Designed With Wearable Solar Panels To National Competition

Amy Mayer/IPR
2017 ISU graduate Kathryn Kaalberg works on the prototype of a jacket containing solar panels she will present in Washington, D.C. this week.

A multidisciplinary Iowa State University team will present its work this week at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C.

Students from apparel design and engineering worked together to create a cotton jacket fitted with nine flexible solar panels.

"If all of the panels were getting optimal energy," says 2017 Iowa State apparel design graduate Kathryn Kaalberg, "you would get one amp and that would be enough to create a charge in your cell phone. You would be able to charge other devices as well, like a camera, or maybe a small tablet, maybe just a little bit slower."

Kaalberg did most of the garment design and sewing. Other students and faculty came from aerospace and mechanical engineering. Kaalberg says they often had to sit down together and work out how the technology could mesh with a functional, washable jacket.

"From a design standpoint, jackets are already kind of complicated," Kaalberg says, "and then you incorporate all of this technology and there's definitely a huge learning curve in terms of the steps to take to put it all together. But we've kind of figured it out as we've gone."

Now, the team hopes they will rise to the top six in a field of 35 to receive a second year of funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet program.

"It's definitely a very, very useful project and we are very confident to move on," says ISU textiles professor Chunhui Xiang. "But we will see how the reviewers do."

Xiang and colleagues from her department as well as project management and engineering submitted the original proposal to EPA for the $15,000 grant that funded this year's prototype.

"Right now, for this stage, we only have one prototype for a men's medium size," Xiang says. "But also we have some problems we want to solve in phase 2."

Xiang says if the federal funding doesn't work out, the team may seek an industry partner. The presentation takes place May 15-17 but Xiang says it could be a few months before they hear about the next phase of funding.