While the concept of fabrics harvesting energy from our movements has been around for a few years, Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have taken things one step further by developing a new technology that allows fabric to generate energy from both motion and sunshine.
Zhong Lin Wang, a Regents professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering, explained that “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”.
By combining these two technologies, the researchers hope to allow more freedom for users of smartphones, smartwatches or GPS devices. Having a source of constant power should mean devices do not need to be charged as frequently, or possibly, at all.
The fabric itself was created using the commercial textile machine. Wang’s team were able to weave together solar cells constructed from lightweight polymer fibres.
These fibres use “triboelectric nanogenerators” to create power. These generators use a combination of electrostatic induction and the triboelectric effect to generate small amounts of power from mechanical motion (like vibration, rotation or sliding). This works because certain materials within the fibres become electrically charged as they come into moving contact with different materials.
What is the triboelectric effect
The sunlight-harvesting part of the material was created using photoanodes. These were manufactured to be wire-shaped, which enabled the team to weave them together with the other fibres.
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The big advantage of this new technique is that the fabric is made from already commonly-used polymer materials. These materials are cheap to manufacture and environmentally friendly meaning that scaling up to large-scale manufacturing should be relatively easy.
The team, so far, have been able to produce fabric samples the size of a sheet of paper.
In one experiment Wang’s team attached a sample to a rod, creating a small colourful flag, and let it blow in the wind inside a moving car with open windows on a cloudy day and generate a significant amount of power. In another experiment, they were able to charge up a 2mF commercial capacitor to 2 volts in one minute using only sunlight and movement from a 4x5cm sample.
While this initial research shows the material is durable with repeated and rigorous use over the medium term the team are now looking at its long-term durability. If they can further optimise their process to create fabrics for industrial they could open up a whole new range of uses for the technology.
The next step in that process will be to develop a method to adequately protect the electrical components of the fabric from rain and moisture.
Research published by Jun Chen, Yi Huang, Haiyang Zou, Ruiyuan Liu, Changyuan Tao, Xing Fan, and Zhong Lin Wang, “Micro-cable structured textile for simultaneously harvesting solar and mechanical energy,” (Nature Energy, September 12, 2016). Nature Energy