For a long time, the 1989 movie Back to the Future II stood as the pop culture reference point for what the future may look like. Well, 2015 came and went and there are still no "real" hoverboards, but if Uber has anything to do with it, flying cars may be right around the corner, and thanks to researchers at University of Central Florida, smart clothing will be too.
Inspired by Marty McFly's self-lacing Nikes, Associate Professor Jayan Thomas, a nanotechnology scientist at the University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center, developed solar-powered filaments that also store energy and can be woven into textiles.
“That movie was the motivation,” Thomas said. “If you can develop self-charging clothes or textiles, you can realize those cinematic fantasies – that’s the cool thing.”
The smart textiles would act as wearable solar-powered batteries that could charge our devices and carry out different functions themselves thanks to the renewable power source.
The filaments are made from thin copper ribbon with solar cells on one side and an energy storing layer on the other. Using a table top loom, Thomas and his team were able to weave the filaments into a square of yarn. The ease with which they were able to produce a textile with these filaments prove that the smart textile could either be used as a part or make up the entirety of outer layer clothing like jackets to power personal health tracking devices, smartphones and more.
Of course, when talking about solar-powered clothing the most notable application is use in the military. Soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq often carry 30 pounds of battery while walking in the desert sun. Solar-powered jackets that store their own energy could lighten their load while still providing them with enough power.
The researchers also see potential for this new technology in electric cars and other uses where a flexible power-generating fabric could make life easier and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.