Off-the-shelf clothing that can power small electronics on the move is closer than ever before thanks to a breakthrough by materials scientists.
Devised by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, the development takes the form of a new method of applying metal-free electrodes to both fabric and fully formed clothing, which are both breathable and bend and move with the garment.
This has been achieved through the use of a conducting polymer coating, which is applied to regular fabric as a vapour to produce a nanometers-thick layer that does not change the way the fabric feels, or how it needs to be cared for. Paired with a different material, the technology uses movement-created friction to generate power.
The result is clothes that are both comfortable to wear and which can power small electronics that are either attached to or integrated with the garment. It represents a major advance on the plastic mounts or heavy cladded fibres that have previously been used to add electronics to fabrics, putting an end to uncomfortable plastic lumps or heavy additions that warp the shape of clothing.
It is thought that the technology could be used for health monitoring, which is increasingly being used by both the military and the healthcare industry.
“We aim to build up the materials science so you can give us any garment you want, any fabric, any weave type, and turn it into a conductor,” explained Trisha Andrew, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Such conducting textiles can then be built up into sophisticated electronics. One such application is to harvest body motion energy and convert it into electricity in such a way that every time you move, it generates power.
“By sandwiching layers of differently materials between two conducting electrodes, a few microwatts of power can be generated when we move.”
The technology, which is detailed in a paper published the journal Advanced Functional Materials, is also designed to be very robust, enabling it to be stretched, pulled and washed like normal garments.
“You’d be amazed how much stress your clothes go through until you try to make a coating that will survive a shirt being pulled over the head. The stress can be huge, up to a thousand newtons of force. For comparison, one footstep is equal to about 10 newtons, so it’s yanking hard,” said Andrew.
“If your coating is not stable, a single pull like that will flake it all off. That’s why we had to show that we could bend it, rub it and torture it. That is a very powerful requirement to move forward.”
Designed to work with conventional fabrics, the technology will likely be embraced by the textiles and fashion industry, particularly among sportswear brands that have already heavily explored adding technology to their clothing.
“There is strong motivation to use something that is already familiar, such as cotton/silk thread, fabrics and clothes, and imperceptibly adapting it to a new technological application,” said Andrew.
“This is a huge leap for consumer products, if you don’t have to convince people to wear something different than what they are already wearing.”