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31 August 2017

The Dawn of Energy-Generating Fabrics & Clothing is Fast Approaching

We’ve spoken before about intuitive technologies being incorporated into clothing, whether that be to provide extra warmth or allow for extra functionality such as fitness-tracking software, but one aspect that none of those previous articles addressed is how exactly to power these technologies. Fortunately, more than one team of researchers are currently hard at work seeking a solution.

Researchers throughout the US and beyond are currently exploring the potential of fabrics which generate their own supply of electricity, cutting out the need for bulky battery packs and the potential of forgetting to charge a device upon which you rely.

Coiled twistron yarns as seen through a microscope   - Img: University of Texas at Dallas
One such effort is being made by a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, headed up by UT professor of chemistry Dr Ray Baughman. Dr Baughman’s team are currently experimenting with the development of “twistron” yarns, a form of energy-harvesting yarn created from carbon nanotubes which measure 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. The tubes are bound into larger yarns before being twisted into a tight coil; when two of these “twistron” yarns are placed side-by-side and then stretched, a small electrical current is generated.

“There's basically no game in town which gives comparable power output to our yarns,” Dr Baughman told NBC News.

In a recent test of the yarn’s capabilities, documented in the journal Science on August 25th, a tight-fitting shirt containing two short pieces of twistron yarn produced 16 millivolts of electricity each time its wearer inhaled. While that may not seem like a lot – a typical mobile phone for example uses around 300x that voltage – the test effectively demonstrates that these technologies do have potential with further development, as they already provide enough power for small tasks such as sending wireless information for use with other connected technologies.

Following the publication of the research, Dr Baughman is now fielding enquiries from various medical equipment manufacturers.

As I mentioned before however, Dr Baughman’s team aren’t the only ones working towards energy-generating fabrics and clothing. For example a paper published in September 2016 in the journal Nature Energy documented the efforts of a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who successfully created a woven fabric which contains a series of solar cells and miniaturised triboelectric generators. So far only small pieces of the fabric have been created, but the research aptly demonstrates its potential.

Another notable example comes from Dr Cary Pint, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr Pint and his team are taking a rather different approach, utilising incredibly thin sheets nanosheets of phosphorus to generate power as detailed in the journal ACS Energy Letters on August 11th. Using these sheets, which are just a few atoms thick, the team have successfully created a prototype which is capable of generating up to 40 milliwatts of power per square foot. Dr Pint is now working with fabric specialists to find an effective way of integrating nanosheets technology into clothing.

Whichever approach ultimately wins out, energy-generating clothing is certainly on the rise. It may take a while for any of these technologies to reach the shops, but you can be fairly sure that day will come eventually.


Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for the written word. Currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor, his time at many UK festivals has taught him the importance of keeping warm.