Researchers are investigating ways flexible solar panels can be sewn into clothing and other textiles so electrical equipment can be recharged without being connected to a mains supply.
The project could soon lead to a tent whose flysheet charges batteries all day so campers can have light all night, or a roll-out plastic sheet which powers cells to operate a DVD player.
Thin, bendy solar panels little thicker than photographic film which can be bonded to everyday fabrics could be on the market in as little as three years.
The technology is the product of a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar.
Scientists say the solar panels will also be cheap to make because they can be mass produced in rolls which can be cut as required and wrapped around clothes, fabrics, furniture or even rooftops.
Gerrit Kroesen, a physicist at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, who led the development team, said: “This technology will be a lot easier to handle than the old glass solar panels.”
His team has made its solar cells flexible simply by making them very thin, but the advance has also involved a degree of compromise in their ability to produce electricity efficiently. While cutting-edge solar panels now operate at an efficiency of about 20 per cent, the new flexible cells are only 7 per cent efficient. However, the manufacturers believe that the reduction in the generating capacity is worth accepting for a cell they believe will be more useful and robust.
The Swedish and Dutch-owned firm Akzo Nobel, a partner in the research, already has a pilot plant producing rolls of silicon cells. A projected full-scale manufacturing plant would produce panels at a cost of under £1 per watt. As such, an A4 sized panel sewn into the back of a jacket and costing less than £7 would charge a mobile phone during a summer stroll in the countryside. Provided mobile users kept within range of the transmitting masts that relay a call to the networks, phones would never again be out of action.