16th November 2016
Solar nanotech clothing could revolutionise wearable technology
Scientists at the University of Central Florida are researching and developing solar nanotech-powered clothing.
Scientists have developed filaments that harvest and store the Sun's energy – and can be woven into textiles. The breakthrough would essentially turn jackets and other clothing into wearable, solar-powered batteries that never need to be plugged in. It could one day revolutionise wearable technology, helping everyone from soldiers who now carry heavy loads of batteries, to smartphone users who could charge a device while on the move by simply placing it in their pocket.
"The idea came to me: we make energy storage devices and we make solar cells in the labs. Why not combine these two devices together?" said Associate Professor Jayan Thomas, a nanotechnology scientist at the University of Central Florida's NanoScience Technology Centre.
Thomas has already been lauded for earlier ground-breaking research. Last year, he received an R&D 100 Award – given to the top inventions of the year worldwide – for his development of a cable that not only transmits energy like a normal cable, but can also store energy like a battery. He's also developing a semi-transparent solar cell that can be applied to windows, allowing some light to pass through, while simultaneously harvesting energy. This new work builds on that research.
Thomas was inspired by the clothing worn by Marty McFly in 80s sci-fi classic, Back to the Future Part II: "That movie was the motivation," he says. "If you can develop self-charging clothes or textiles, you can realise those cinematic fantasies – that's the cool thing."
His research team developed filaments in the form of copper ribbons that are thin, flexible and lightweight. The ribbons have a solar cell on one side and energy-storing layers on the other. Using a small, tabletop loom, the ribbons were woven into a square of yarn.
The proof-of-concept shows that the filaments could be laced throughout jackets or other outwear to harvest and store energy to power phones, personal health sensors and other tech gadgets. It's an advancement that overcomes the main shortcoming of solar cells: the energy they produce must flow into the power grid or be stored in a battery that limits their portability.
"A major application could be with our military," Thomas explains. "When you think about our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, they're walking in the Sun. Some of them are carrying over 30 pounds of batteries on their bodies. It's hard for the military to deliver batteries to these soldiers in this hostile environment. A garment like this can harvest and store energy at the same time if sunlight is available."
There are a host of other potential uses, including electric cars that could generate and store energy whenever they're in the Sun.
"That's the future. What we've done is demonstrate that it can be made," Thomas said. "It's going to be very useful for the general public and the military and many other applications."
His team's research is published in the academic journal Nature Communications.
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