Low batt? Try charging from your shirt!

August 8, 2012
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    Researchers from the University of South Carolina have been able to convert a regular, store-bought shirt into a capacitor, which means that the very clothes we wear could, someday, power the myriad of devices we use in our everyday lives.

    While wearable devices are currently iffy at best, we do carry a handful of devices on our person, including our smartphones, personal music players, and to some extent, tablets. Noting that electronics are fast becoming part of our wardrobe, a team led by the USC’s Xiaodong Li and Lihong Bao are experimenting on ways how fabric can act as flexible energy sources for devices.

    One day our cotton T-shirts could have more functions; for example, a flexible energy storage device that could charge your cell phone or your iPad.

    The university researchers have found a way to turn a regular t-shirt into a superconductor by soaking the clothing in a fluoride solution, and then baking it in a conventional oven without oxygen (to prevent combustion and charring).

    The result: the fabric in the clothing was converted from mere cellulose into activated carbon. These can then act as capacitors that store electric charge. The resulting fabric is actually a double-layer capacitor, or a supercapacitor, Li says.

    But there’s more. The team then took a step further and coated the fabric with “nanoflowers” of manganese oxide, which greatly strengthened the electrode performance of the fabric. The resulting “high-performing supercapacitor” then produces a highly resilient material for charging, which can charge and discharge thousands of times and only lose 5% of their capacity.

    The results of the study were published on Advanced Materials. While any commercial applications are still forthcoming, the search for greener and more flexible energy sources for devices continues. For example, solar panels can only do so much, especially if they come in small sizes. In contrast, the demand for energy in mobile devices is going up, with rising processor power, increasing screen sizes, and an rise in human dependence on being connected.

    Perhaps scientists can find a way to incorporate solar panels into our clothes, so we can charge the fabric superconductors while hanging them out to dry. Or maybe developers will be able to incorporate a kinetic energy recovery system that charges our pants and socks while we walk.

    If you’ve experienced constantly looking for an outlet to plug in after a busy workday, you might soon find yourself plugging into your shirt, then your jacket, then your pants. Or how about your underwear? That would surely be a shocker!

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