Energy Harvesting Textiles, Next-Generation Wearable Electronics?

Smart fabrics are evolving faster than was ever expected and there are many different avenues taken by the textile industry, one of them being fabrics that can generate electricity from physical movement.

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The latest development by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology is a fabric that can simultaneously harvest energy from both sunshine and motion. By combining two types of electricity generation into one textile allowed the garments to provide their own source of energy that is strong enough to power devices such as your smart phone. Leaving the question how do they plan to commercialize this great innovation?

UNITED STATES - JUNE 16: The Georgia Institute of Technology campus is pictured on Friday, June 16, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia. Tuition for Stephen McNearney?s first year at the Georgia Institute of Technology?s engineering school, the largest in the U.S., cost $3,882. Tuition for Stephen McNearney's second year at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which has the largest U.S. engineering school, will be $3,892. If he had attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has the top-ranked program, the bill would have been nine times as much. (Photo by Philip Mccollum/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The Georgia Institute of Technology campus | Photo Credit: Philip Mccollum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Well before they can introduce it to the mass market, we need to first understand how it all works. The team used a commercial textile machine to weave together solar cells constructed from lightweight polymer fibers with fiber-based triboelectric nanogenerators. Using a combination of the triboelectric effect and electrostatic induction, generated a small amount of electrical power from mechanical motion such as rotation, sliding or vibration.

Envisioning a new fabric, Zhong Lin Wang, a Regents professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering shared, “This hybrid power textile presents a novel solution to charging devices in the field from something as simple as the wind blowing on a sunny day.”  Highly flexible, breathable and light weight they envision the adaptable 320 micrometers thick material to be woven into consumer products like wearable garments and household essentials like curtains.

figure_1f_3This means that we can look forward to our garments capturing energy that is released when one fabric comes into contact with another fabric. It is that rustling movement that has the power to generate minutes of electricity. The science is the micro-cable power textile which simultaneously harvests energy from ambient sunshine and mechanical movement. On the thought behind the idea Wang explains, “The backbone of the textile is made of commonly-used polymer materials that are inexpensive to make and environmentally friendly. The electrodes are also made through a low cost process, which makes it possible to use large-scale manufacturing.” 

Smart fabrics are evolving faster than was ever expected. There has been many different avenues taken by the textile industry and one of them is fabrics that can generate electricity from physical movement.
Smart fabrics are evolving faster than was ever expected. There has been many different avenues taken by the textile industry and one of them is fabrics that can generate electricity from physical movement.

The high point is that the fabric has a decent capability of working in a harsh environment, but the researchers are yet to reach the holy grail which is long-term durability. Once that hurdle has been jumped, commercialization of energy harvesting textiles is only a switch away. Especially with Google and Levi’s Project Jacquard also looking to create the kind of fabric that will bring about various possibilities. Wouldn’t it be great if one of these possibilities was trainers that could track your steps? The accuracy will most likely be second to none and we can wave au revoir to our wrist band fitness trackers. Although this is something we look forward to, we do understand that the fabric is still in its academic research phase, so we will have to wait that little bit longer to be able enjoy the fruits of a world were external power sources do not solely rule our tech life.

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