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Scientists Develop Fabric Coating that Can Power Your iPhone

Power-generating apparel could be on the horizon for consumers.

Earlier this month, UMass Amherst scientists debuted a coating that turns fabrics into circuits. Developed by applying breathable, flexible and metal-free electrodes to off-the-shelf garments, the coating enables fabrics to transport energy and power small devices.

“We aim to build up the materials science so you can give us any garment you want, any fabric, any weave type, and turn it into a conductor,” UMass Amherst materials scientist Trisha Andrew said. “One such application is to harvest body motion energy and convert it into electricity in such a way that every time you move, it generates power.”

Andrew explained the process of triboelectric charging, which involves generating small electric currents through relative movement of layers. Materials, including fabric, can become electrically charged when they create friction and rub against a different material. Placing material layers between two conducting electrodes allows the fabric to generate power with physical movement.

In an early digital paper, “Advanced Functional Materials,” Andrew and postdoctoral researcher Lu Shuai Zhang describe the process they use to coat fabrics with a conducting polymer, poly(3,4-ethylenedioxytiophene). Dubbed PEDOT, the polymer is used to create conducting fabrics that are resistant to stretching and wear and can stay stable after repeated laundering. The scientists coat fabrics with roughly 500 nanometers of the polymer to preserve fabric’s soft texture.

Both scientists tested the electrical conductivity and fabric stability of PEDOT films with 14 fabrics, including varieties of cotton, linen and silk. The testing revealed that PEDOT coating didn’t alter the weight or feel of each fabric because of its flexible nature. Although PEDOT is a relatively new concept, the polymer could help brands create lightweight and chargeable clothing in the future.

“There is strong motivation to use something that is already familiar, such as cotton/silk thread, fabrics and clothes, and imperceptibly adapting it to a new technological application,” Andrew said. “This is a huge leap for consumer products, if you don’t have to convince people to wear something different than what they are already wearing.”