A year from now, U.S. soldiers may go into the field with a thin sheet of flexible plastic, packed into the size of a road map and attached to their combat vests. They would unfold the plastic to let the sun recharge the batteries powering their walkie-talkies, night optical gear, and other electronics.
The plastic, which the Army expects to test this year, would be coated with solar cells created by Konarka Technologies Inc., in Lowell, Massachusetts. While traditional solar cells are built on crystalline silicon or glass, Konarka uses nanotechnology—in this case, minute crystals of titanium dioxide coated witha light-absorbing dye. The dye-sensitized cells (available in snappy camouflage patterns) are as thick as just a few sheets of paper.
The result: A power source that could free troops from carrying battery packs and rechargers that weigh as much as 100 pounds and leave traces enemies can track when tossed away. "As technology evolves, more and more sophisticated electronic devices are put on the soldier, and you need power to drive them," says Lynne Samuelson, research chemist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center.
Konarka expects its cells will serve industrial and consumer applications as well. Someday, they could power your cell phone or wireless laptop. Says Konarka CEO and president Bill Beckenbaugh: "We'd like to free mobile devices from needing to be plugged in."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.