Energy harvesting fabrics are set to power smartphones and other wearables in the near future. The first such fabric has hit the news by proving the technology in real world testing. The immense numbers of wearable technologies being sold, provide a market ready to capitalise on this type of charging solution.
Today, there are 2.5 billion smartphones in the world and this number is set to rise to 5 billion by 2019, according to statistics company Gartner. Gartner estimates that there will be 50.4 million smartwatch sales in 2016, driven by the Apple Watch Series 2 and the Samsung Gear S3.
These smartwatch sales are just a part of the 276.6 million wearables that are expected to be sold worldwide in 2016. These wearables includes fitness bands, chest straps, bluetooth headsets, VR headsets and body-worn cameras.
Research published in the journal Nature Energy highlights the work of Professor Zhong Lin Wang, of the School of Materials Science and Engineering, at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
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Two years of research has resulted in the development of an energy harvesting fabric that will be on the market in another two years time. The breathable, robust and foldable material looks like any conventional fabric and can be incorporated into the design of any t-shirt, jumper, coat, cap, hat, trousers, socks or skirt.
The hybrid power textile has been designed to charge wearables by capturing two types of passive energy. The first energy source that is captured is sunlight, while the secondary energy source that is captured comes from frictional sources.
For example, a human that stands under sunlight and is wearing a 4cm x 5cm section of energy harvesting fabric will generate, on average, an electrical output of 0.5mW. When the friction of human biomechanical movements, such as handshaking, muscle stretching or walking are factored in, the energy harvesting fabric can power a commercial capacitor with up to 2v per minute.
The energy harvesting fabric isn’t solely limited to clothing and can be incorporated into part of a flag or tent, in order to harvest energy from ambient wind blowing and sunlight. The electrical energy is also not limited to charging smartphones and wearables and can be used to charge personal electronics or drive electrochemical reactions for self-powered water splitting.
The energy harvesting fabrics can also be up-scaled to generate electrical energy on a commercial scale. Could it be possible to replace solar panels and wind turbines with an easier-on-the-eye solution that captures energy from both sources at once?
The energy harvesting fabric consists of woven photovoltaic elements with copper electrodes and acts as a triboelectric nanogenerator, converting frictional forces into an electrical charge. We already witness the results of frictional forces when we experience static electric.
The solar cells are fabricated from lightweight polymer fibres to create micro cables that are 320µm thick. This thickness equates to a diameter of about a third of a millimetre.
The energy sources are not just from solar thermal and mechanical movement, such as body movement, friction and wind. Vibrations resulting from heartbeats, footsteps, air flow and ambient noise, at low frequencies of <10Hz, all covert into electricity using piezoelectric zinc oxide (ZnO) entangled nanowires, that have been grown, at a low cost, around textile fibres.
Professor Zhong Lin Wang summarised by saying “We have presented a lightweight, flexible, foldable and sustainable power source by fabricating an all-solid wearable hybrid power textile in a staggered way on an industrial weaving machine via a shuttle-flying process”.
He concluded by stating that “Based on the lightweight and low-cost polymer fibres, the reported hybrid power textile introduces an innovative module fabricating strategy with greatly reduced device thickness, weight, total cost and suitability for mass production”.
We have now seen what energy harvesting will look like in the future, but what about harvesting energy to charge your smartphone today?
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The world’s first wearable motion-charger, known as AMPY MOVE, was created in 2014. AMPY MOVE transforms kinetic energy from your bodies movement and turns it into electricity, in order to charge a smartphone or other wearable device.
AMPY MOVE can be worn, a popular choice for those who exercise, or simply dropped into a bag or put into a pocket. Essentially this device is a power bank that can be charged through motion, in order to offer up to 24 hours of extra smartphone battery life.
The AMPY+ smartphone app will offer increased appeal to this existing green charger as it provides predictions and insights, with a Battery Life Forecast, while also tracking calories burned and the power the wearer has generated.
So, today we can charge our smartphones through a similarly sized motion charger, while tomorrow we will be charging our smartphones with energy harvesting fabrics. Is it possible to imagine what tech will arrive in 2020 and beyond?
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Written by: Michael Brown