By John DeFore
This week’s issue of the journal Nature announces research that could someday lead to a “power shirt”: clothing made of textiles that can transform the wearer’s movement from kinetic energy into electricity.
The tech relies on zinc oxide nanowires that use the “piezoelectric effect,” producing an electrical current simply by rubbing against each other. In this application, the tiny wires are “grown” onto Kevlar fibers, turning each strand of Kevlar into something looking like a pipe cleaner with billions of bristles (see picture). These strands are then paired, with one in each pair coated in gold, and when rubbed together they produce a small amount of electricity.
“If we can combine many of these fibers in double or triple layers in clothing, we could provide a flexible, foldable and wearable power source that, for example, would allow people to generate their own electrical current while walking, ” says Georgia Tech researcher Zhong Lin Wang.
The technology is a long way from showing up in a pair of jogging pants that can power your MP3 player: Wang’s team has so far generated only around four millivolts, using a generator composed of a pair of centimeter-long fibers — a square meter of similar material could theoretically produce 80 milliwatts. The scientists haven’t yet determined how such a material would be washed, either, since zinc oxide is sensitive to moisture — so even if you could buy one today, you’d probably want to keep your power-plant workout suit in the garage where nobody would smell it.
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