Carbon Nanotube-Based Fabric Could Double as Charger for Electronics

Engineers at the University of Cincinnati have partnered with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to create clothing that can charge mobile phones and other devices.

Researchers already have developed clothing that can harvest and store power for recharging devices on the go. In doing so, they've mainly harvested energy from sources such as one’s own body motion or the sun. Now, researchers from the University of Cincinnati (UC), working with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, are working to develop clothing for this purpose using a different type of power source: carbon nanotubes.

UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science has a five-year agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop various solutions to improve military technology. Included are smart materials that can power electronics.

Spinning and Weaving

A team led by UC professors Vesselin Shanov and Mark Schulz has created carbon nanotubes that can be stretched over an industrial spool to be spun together into a thread that resembles spider’s silk—one of the strongest known natural materials. It can then be woven into textiles.

Those textiles can leverage properties of the carbon—such as a large surface area that is strong, conductive, and heat-resistant—to generate electricity to power electronics. In doing so, they can eliminate the need for personnel to carry often heavy batteries with them, researchers said in a UC publication.

“It’s exactly like a textile,” Shanov said in UC’s report. “We can assemble them like a machine thread and use them in applications ranging from sensors to track heavy metals in water or energy storage devices, including super capacitors and batteries.” 

Energy clothing from carbon nanotubes
University of Cincinnati (UC) graduate student Mark Haase stretches carbon nanotube fiber grown in the university’s Nanoworld Lab. Like spider silk, it's stretchy and strong. Researchers are using the material to develop clothing for the military that can be used as a power source. (Image source: UC)


Soldiers often carry equipment, such as lights, night-vision, and communications gear, which requires batteries comprising about 1/3 of the weight they carry. If some of that weight is removed by wearing energy-harvesting clothing, it’s a boon for the military, researchers said.

Indeed, scientists are eying carbon to replace existing materials in numerous applications. But researchers must first explore how to leverage the material’s properties optimally, Shanov said. “The major challenge is translating these beautiful properties to take advantage of their strength, conductivity, and heat resistance,” he said. 

Many Uses

Some of the new applications for carbon include replacing copper wire in cars and planes to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. Carbon also can be used to filter water, as well as provide diagnostic and other medical data through the development of new biometric sensors. Researchers also are eying carbon to replace polyester and other synthetic fibers—a notion integral to the UC team’s work to develop carbon-based energy-harvesting clothing that can recharge devices.

So far, what researchers have accomplished is a bit on the cost-prohibitive side to translate into mainstream textiles for consumer use. But one day, it could be a commercial technology, said Mark Haase, a graduate student who also is working on the project.

“We’re working with clients who care more about performance than cost,” Haase said in US’s publication. “But once we perfect synthesis, scale goes up considerably and costs should drop accordingly. Then we’ll see carbon nanotubes spread to many, many more applications,” he said. Currently, UC’s lab can produce about 50 yards of carbon nanotube thread at a time for its research, whereas large-scale textile machines need miles of thread.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.


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