Textiles absorbing energy from the sun, thus powering jackets to charge mobile devices, could soon be a reality as Back to the Future becomes the art imitating life.
Combining energy-storage management with solar cell development, a researcher in the US claims to be one step closer to truly wearable devices: smart clothing.
Jayan Thomas, a nanotechnology scientist at the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) nanoscience technology centre, had an idea for self-charging clothing that came straight from the movies.
Inspired by Back to the Future’s iconic self-tying shoes, Thomas has developed filaments that can harvest and store the sun’s energy. These filaments can then be woven into textiles, forming clothing.
“That movie was the motivation,” he said, with the research published in Nature. “If you can develop self-charging clothes or textiles, you can realise those cinematic fantasies – that’s the cool thing.”
Thomas’s idea was simple: make clothing to support the future we’re headed for, such that it can support our growing dependence on electronic devices.
Jordi Puigneró, secretary of telecommunications, cybersecurity and digital society in the government of Catalonia, recently spoke of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
However, rather than the pyramid ending after descending from self-actualisation, through esteem, love, safety and physiological needs; Puigneró suggested Wi-Fi and battery as two new base points.
Thomas seems to agree, with his team developing 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 loom, the scientists wove the ribbons into yarn and, as a proof of concept, showed it laced through jackets or other clothing exposed to sunlight.
Thomas considered a real-life market for this technology and, sadly, it’s not the everyday consumer.
“A major application could be with our military,” Thomas said. “When you think about our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re walking in the sun.
“Some of them are carrying more than 30 pounds of batteries on their bodies. It is 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.”
Extract it further and this technology could be incorporated in smart vehicles, signage or other such exposed devices.