Would you have ever imagined technology reaching a point where you could charge electronics in the rain? It might have sounded impossible just a few short years ago, but in today’s highly connected world, technology is accomplishing the unthinkable. Nexus Media published an article claiming that users could soon be charging their electronics by simply walking out in the rain. And the research team behind this project, which is being lead by Swedish scientist Anja Lund, is testing the textile that they claim can generate electricity even during a thunderstorm by using kinetic energy.
For testing purposes, the experimental material has been incorporated into a shoulder bag that Lund’s group is testing to record the textile’s response to moisture. The team claims that when the arm strap of the bag was doused with water, the fabric keep producing power when wet but it became even stronger.
“The reason we focus on the functionality underwater is that most electronic textiles have a structure that means they would probably cease to function when wet,” Lund said. “For practical use, it’s important that this textile can withstand both foul weather and wash, as this would be expected from other textiles. Our textiles can be used in a shoulder strap, but can also be produced on a larger scale and used in upholstery, mats or as filler in composite structures. The larger the textile, the more power it will produce.”
(Video and content rights belong to Chalmer’s University of Technology)
Despite a lack of buzz around electronic textiles, the concept isn’t anything new. And when you think of the broader category of wearable electronics, the concept has been around for quite some time in one technology-influenced fashion statement or another. However, with climate changes on the rise, the improvement to wearable electronics and textiles is becoming more and more prevalent to our society. Climate change has prompted researchers to try to devise innovative clean energy sources that emphasize comfort, utility and sustainability .
One area in particular that researchers are turning towards is finding a more efficient alternative to the standard battery – or at least improving today’s batteries significantly. With several commonplace alkaline and lithium-ion batteries on the market, we’re seeing a growth in the battery waste stream – which then goes on to contaminate soil with toxic material. Therefore, several groups of scientists have been opting to use fabric and yarn to develop eco-friendly batteries.
Using materials like these will be beneficial as they can be bent, stretched, hit or even washed in water — in other words, can withstand the wear and tear of everyday life — while still maintaining power. Lund and one of her colleagues, Christian Müller, both of whom are researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, have said that they relied on the piezoelectric effect, which is the generation of electricity when materials are stretched or compressed, to convert kinetic energy into electricity. Lund created the textile after spinning a polymer with an electrically conducting yarn. “We found that fiber spinning is a great way to do this, since it entails stretching the material many times,” she comments.
The piezoelectric material is made up of 24 fibers, each as thin as a strand of hair. When they become wet, the moisture improves the electrical contact between the fibers and becomes even more efficient. Moreover, “the heavier the weight packed in the bag, and the more of the bag that consists of our fabric, the more electric power we obtain,” she said.
“Once the fibers were developed, we started to look for practical applications for them,” she added. “We found that they can function as sensors, for example, if you weave a band from the textile and place it around the chest, the textile will sense the small movements due to the heartbeat, and generate electrical signals in response.”
The only challenge remaining for the Swedish team before practical implementation involves the interface between the soft textiles and the hard conventional electronics, such as watches, laptops and smartphones. They are working on “how to connect these two without breaking the textile, or without the conventional electronics being ruined by water,” Lund said.
But once Lund’s textile technology can be incorporated into inflexible and hard conventional electronics, no doubt that it will be a complete game changer to how we use and charge our electronics.