What if you could charge your phone with your jacket? The possibility might not be too far off. A professor of nanotechnology at the University of Central Florida (UCF), inspired by Marty McFly’s self-lacing Nike “Air Mag” tennis shoes in Back to the Future Part II (1989), has been developing filaments that can be woven into clothing to harvest the sun’s energy. “If you can develop self-charging clothes or textiles, you can realize those cinematic fantasies–that’s the cool thing,” says Dr. Jayan Thomas, the UFC scientist, in an article from the university.
His research, recently published in the academic journal Nature Communications, centered on the idea of turning clothes into portable solar-powered charging stations that don’t have to be plugged in. These clothing items could charge electronics directly without requiring heavy batteries to store their power. Thomas and his team developed flexible filaments of copper ribbon that are thin enough to weave into apparel. The copper ribbons have solar cells on one side and energy-storing layers on the other. Usually, solar-powered devices harvest energy in one unit and store it in other units. Thomas wanted to combine the two devices into one, eliminating space and weight problems. Though wearable energy-harvesting technology has been researched before, this is the first attempt to create a single device to both gather and store energy from the sun in a wearable technology.
To produce a prototype, he and his team wove the copper ribbons into a square of fabric with a small table loom. The research was in its early stages when published in November 2016. Thomas believes solar-powered textiles can be marketed eventually, but the technology is still in its early stages of development. It could be several years before we can wear—or weave—solar-powered fabric.