Science Scope

The solar-powered bikini makes waves

Posting in Design

Do you think a solar-powered bikini and similar "swimware" bring us closer to a renewable energy future or make it seem like a pipe dream?

I'm all for free, cheap energy, which -- technological hurdles aside -- largely describes solar.

I once coveted a backpack sporting photovoltaic (PV) panels while on an eight-day trek in the Himalayas, I've looked into buying a solar-powered iPhone battery charging case and I've even written about sun-fueled compacting trashcans.

I look forward to the day when everyday objects have the ability to get an energy boost from the sun, or when our clothing, cars and other possessions can harness and transfer its energy to other devices.

But while I wait for solar power to become mobile and ubiquitous, I sometimes see things that make me wonder whether it can go too far.

Take, for example, the solar-powered bikini.

Covered in flexible PV strips and conductive thread, the two-piece features a 5 Volt USB port by which you can charge a cell phone, an mp3 player or a camera.

Designer Andrew Schneider spends 80 hours custom-making each by hand (for $500 and up). He is also developing the iDrink -- board shorts for men that will be able to chill a beer -- for release this summer.

The added functionality of the bikini doesn't impair the function normally afforded by a bathing suit -- the ability to swim. You just need to unplug all your devices before jumping in and dry off fully before re-connecting them.

When I ask Schneider by email how many orders he's had, he says, "We've had some interest from various individuals, boutiques, and fashion shows."

This is a good answer to a question I didn't ask.

He came up with the idea for the solar-powered bikini while in a graduate sustainability course at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, which Schneider describes as an engineering school for artists or an art school for engineers. On the first day, people were brainstorming ideas for sustainable products and because Schneider had none, he joked to his friend that he would make a bikini that could cool a beer at the beach.

Though the skimpiness of a bikini prevents it from having enough surface area to power a chiller, the men's board shorts will get that part covered.

Science Scope is supposed to be about "the amazing discoveries, emerging research trends and innovative techniques to help solve business and technology problems now and in the future." And certainly one of those future problems will be energy, as climate change worsens and finding oil becomes even more challenging.

But do lark projects like this undermine efforts to make solar power ubiquitous by making it seem frivolous? Or will projects like this bring us closer to that future day when we can power up wherever we like without worrying about the climate or oil?

What do you think?

Photos: Andrew Schneider

via Grist

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure