In the future a brisk walk may charge your mobile phones

Researchers are investigating how to capture green energy from clothing and use it to power wearable electronic devices

Imagine you could use energy created by your jacket or trousers to power your mobile phone or Fitbit? A team of scientists from Ireland and Scotland who are involved in a €1.5 million research project believe this may be a reality as early as 2027.

The researchers are investigating how to capture green energy from clothing and use it to power a variety of wearable electronic devices such as smart watches, healthcare monitors and mobile phones.

They say that while the use of wearable devices is increasing, the need for frequent charging and the physical rigidity of batteries could be key challenges in the future.

A multi-disciplined team of scientists from IT Sligo, the Tyndall National Institute, Cork, the University of Glasgow, and the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, is exploring ways to capture kinetic energy from clothing using nanotechnology.

"Our life is increasingly depending on smart devices attached to our body such as a smart watch, fitness monitors or different types of health analysers thanks to the fast growth of the 'Internet of Things'," said Prof Suresh C Pillai, who is based in IT Sligo.

“The most commonly used power source of these devices is lithium ion batteries. As the level of functionality has increased and the devices have miniaturised to fit the human body, the demand for energy is also increasing and is predicted to upsurge significantly in the coming years.”

Prof Pillai said energy is generated because of everyday human activities like walking or running. “In fact our body is an effective power source: activities of daily living such as brisk walking or regular movement can produce electricity using nanotechnology methods.”

The project aims to convert human motion into electricity using triboelectric nanogenerator (TENG) technology.

The researchers believe that from the movement of the body, TENG materials attached to clothing would move too, creating an electrical current. With the use of wearable health monitors expected to surge, Prof Pillai says this will be a very sustainable form of power.

The researchers say they aim to develop the next generation of ultra-high-performance wearable textile-TENG, capable of powering wearable devices while avoiding the need for carrying heavy battery packs.

Lithium ion batteries

Prof Pillai, principal investigator of the project for Ireland and head of the nanotechnology and bioengineering research group at IT Sligo, said lithium ion batteries are for now the most commonly used power source for these devices.

The research is being funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Scientists have in recent years been probing ways of converting environmental energy into electricity to meet the ongoing demands for more sustainable power sources.

Harvesting environmental mechanical energy is regarded as an eco-friendly method which has huge potential given the expected increase in the use of wearable devices such as blood pressure monitors and other health monitors.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland