New “Smart Fabric” Collects Energy from the Sun, Wind

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Wearable technology like smart watches might be a growing trend, but what about generating your own power with the clothes on your back? Granted, they haven’t invented solar-harvesting shirts yet, but an international team of nanomaterials scientists and engineers have come up with a “smart fabric” that collects energy from the sun, the wind, and even your own movement.

Cutting our fossil fuel reliance would be a huge victory in the war against climate change. The emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases pollutants notwithstanding, finding cleaner, sustainable sources of energy is a growing trend to alleviate our need for oil and coal. With everything from wind turbines, solar panels, and — hopefully coming soon to practical application — photosynthetic cells that process carbon dioxide into syngas, something as simple as textiles don’t seem to fit in with the rest.

Dubbed “smart fabric” by a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Chongqing University, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, this new material is turning heads — which that very motion, given the new tech, could generate some electricity all its own.


New "Smart Fabric" Collects Energy from the Sun, WindImage source: Nature Energy (via Motherboard)

Harnessing Power in All Directions

While the smart fabric generates power from solar energy, its second source comes from mechanical energy. This could be anything from the fabric flapping in the wind or just from human motion if the smart fabric is worn, having been woven into clothes. Even in very small samples, a 4 cm by 5 cm patch “was demonstrated to charge a 2 mF commercial capacity in 2 V in 1 minute under ambient sunlight in the presence of mechanical excitation… The textile could continuously power a watch, directly charge a cell phone, and drive water splitting reactions.” That last part can then be used to produce hydrogen and oxygen gases; while oxygen is vital for human respiration, hydrogen gas can serve as another form of clean fuel, not to mention a plethora of other uses





New "Smart Fabric" Collects Energy from the Sun, Wind

Image source: Nature Energy (via Motherboard)

From its abstract in Nature:

“Developing lightweight, flexible, foldable, and sustainable power sources with simple transport and storage remains a challenge and an urgent need for the advancement of next-generation wearable electronics. Here, we report a micro-cable power textile for simultaneously harvesting energy from ambient sunshine and mechanical movement. Solar cells fabricated from lightweight polymer fibers into micro-cables are then woven via a shuttle-flying process with fiber-based triboelectric nanogenerators to create a smart fabric.”

To help illustrate the smart fabric’s construction, the scientists have shown how the fibers are woven together to form the unique solar-/mechanical-powered textile:

New "Smart Fabric" Collects Energy from the Sun, Wind

Image source: Wang et al (via Motherboard)

What’s most exciting is that the team reports that the smart fabric is both “breathable and robust, while allowing for enough motion to make them good candidates for wearable electronics. Even something as simple as a handshake with a 4cm by 5cm section could power a commercial capacitor with up to 2 V/minute.

While it’s still being tested, the research team has been emphasizing the materials’ scalable industrial applications: “the new material is robust and all but ready for integration into industrial textile production processes. It could be something we could wear or use for shelter or fly on a flagpole, but the textile can be scaled up as well, offering power generation at a much larger capacity.” Motherboard’s article covering the new technology even suggests “hillsides covered in parachute power generators” might be in the near future as we try to harvest what sustainable energy we can from our environment.

If smart fabrics are as robust and flexible as they’re claimed to be, this could revolutionize the textile industry and everything effected by it. Just think, if you went camping, your tent could act as its own generator, soaking up sun rays and capturing some of that wind energy that you can then use to charge your various electronics. The best part of it all is it comes without a carbon footprint, absorbing energy from the environment without combustion reactions or the need for fuel. Heck, a walk or bike ride around town could become a new routine while you’re trying to charge your phone instead of plugging it into the wall before bed.

Whatever its applications, this new smart fabric certainly is the epitome of what it means to develop sustainable technology. What better way to generate and store electricity than by just existing, making use of readily available, renewable sources. Better yet, this is just the beginning; who knows how far this technology will go once it hits the market?


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