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Run for it! Smart fabric generates electricity when you move

running exercise workout
Your morning jog helps burn calories but, someday soon, it may charge your phone as well. A new smart fabric developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology generates electricity from movement and sunlight, and stores it in the fabric’s fibers.

“The objective was to harvest energy from our living environment, for example, human walking or muscle movement and fabric; the goal is to drive small electronics,” author and Georgia Tech nanotechnologist Zhong Lin Wang told the Los Angeles Times. “And this research recently attracted a lot of attention because these days, flexible electronics, wearable electronics, have become very popular and fashionable. But each of them needs a power source.”

Zhong Lin Wang, et al. Self-powered textile for wearable electronics by hybridizing fiber-shaped nanogenerators, solar cells, and supercapacitors

This fabric wasn’t sewn overnight. For the past 11 years, Wang and his team have been working to develop the material to be light and flexible enough for practical applications. They stretched solar cells into long fibers to collect sunlight, and incorporated triboelectric nanogenerators that generate electricity from friction, and elongated supercapacitors to store the energy.

The current prototype is small — just 35 square inches — and not quite as flexible as cotton. The key to elasticity will be in making the fibers thinner. Regardless, even just a few of the current fibers might be woven into a garment to generate a small amount of energy, according to Wang, perhaps enough to charge a phone.

But that functionality is still some ways off.

“There’s a lot of things to do: Number one is to get the fiber thinner, so [it is] more flexible,” Wang said. “Number two is to improve the durability or robustness, so they can last longer. And third is, we have to work on continuing to improve the performance. The more power, the better.”

The research was published this week in Science Advances.

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