One of the biggest problems with wearable electronics is the power source. While scientists and engineers have been successful at dramatically reducing the size of electronic components and sensors, the size and bulk of a battery to power the system has remained a stumbling block. Now, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed an alternative charge-storage device that can be embroidered onto any garment.
A charge storing supercapacitor is embroidered onto a t-shirt, providing power to wearable electronics and biosensors. (Image source: UMass Amherst)
In a news release from UMass Amherst, materials chemist Trisha L. Andrews explains, “Batteries or other kinds of charge storage are still the limiting components for most portable, wearable, ingestible, or flexible technologies. The devices tend to be some combination of too large, too heavy, and not flexible.” Her research team created a micro-supercapacitor and combined vapor-coated conductive threads with a polymer film—along with a special sewing technique that creates a flexible mesh of aligned electrodes on a textile backing.
Meeting the Challenges
It turns out, according to the UMass release, that “…supercapacitors are ideal candidates for wearable charge storage circuits because they have inherently higher power densities compared to batteries.” But the team went on to note that, “…incorporating electrochemically active materials with high electrical conductivities and rapid ion transport into textiles is challenging.” The vapor coating process developed by Andrew and her colleagues creates porous conducting polymer films on densely twisted yarns, which “…can be easily swelled with electrolyte ions and maintain high charge storage capacity per unit length as compared to prior work with dyed or extruded fibers.”
Although the resulting solid-state device has a high ability to store charge for its size, Andrew—who directs the Wearable Electronics Lab at UMass Amherst—notes that textile scientists have avoided using vapor deposition because of its technical difficulties and potential high costs. However, recently, research has shown that the deposition technology can be scaled up and remain cost-effective.
One of the objectives of Andrew’s research is to incorporate the embroidered charge-storage arrays with e-textile sensors and low-power microprocessors, allowing the development of smart garments that can monitor a person’s gait and joint movements throughout a normal day.
Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.
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