Clothes that make the man modern
Items you wear will be able to charge your phone, display tweets, track the path of an infection or monitor your heart rate – and the technology may be closer than you think, writes JJ WORRALL
FOUR YEARS FROM now it’s estimated that the market for wearable technologies will be worth in excess of €4.5 billion. Sensors are already being attached to medical clothing, headphones inserted into hoodies and belts built to help remedy dodgy backs. Yet the most exciting innovation in this space isn’t about attaching technology to your clothes – it’s about turning your clothes into the technology itself.
Achieving this goal depends on harnessing our energy. “It’s like that scene in The Matrix where Morpheus explains to Neo that humans are no longer born but are ‘grown’ to act as batteries,” says Prof Lewei Lin from the University of California at Berkeley. “That’s sort of what we-re trying to do”.
The less apocalyptic reality behind Lin’s vision is that he and his team of researchers at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Centre are working with fibre nano-generators which, when combined with clothing, convert the energy of bending or stretching your arm into electricity. Through the piezoelectric properties (referring to when a strain, force or pressure is converted into an electrical charge) of the nano-generators, it’s possible that enough power can be created to charge devices such as smartphones or MP3 players carried within the clothing.
Lin is still at the theoretical stage of this process though, while across the country at Wake Forest University in North Carolina (WFU), Prof Dave Carroll estimates he’s about a year or so away from a commercial product of similar design.
His research has resulted in Power Felt, a fabric based on carbon nano-tubes woven onto flexible plastic fibres to create thermoelectric properties which use both motion and body heat to create electricity. With a prototype T-shirt created – and adorned with the WFU crest and a small iPhone charger lead – the last few months have seen “literally every one of the biggest clothing manufacturers in the world” descend upon his lab.
As these companies contemplate investing in the product, he says the question he gets asked the most is not about the devices that can be charged by the shirt, or even about how the technology works, but does it come in any other colour?
“The composites involved are black, we can’t help that,” he laughs and while he has pleaded with the companies in question that black is a slimming colour after all they won’t budge. “They’re willing to put a bunch of money into the product – not necessarily making it more powerful but changing its colour. I understand though, it’s their business.”
For Lin to realise his theories he says a lot depends on the desire and the funding from possible investors, but he adds that the key to full-scale production is to make the clothing affordable.