How Your Pants Might Charge Your Phone

Developed by a team of researchers at the Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, a scrap of felt-like material holds the key to making fabrics of the future work as hard as you do.

The research, published in the February issue of the technology journal Nano Letters, revolves around the use of nanotechnology to create composite fabrics from carbon nanotubes and polymers. The “nano” part of that equation revolves around three-dimensional (usually carbon) molecules less than 100 nanometers in any dimension (height, width or depth)—a definition provided by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. The polymers are long-chain compounds like polyesters, which in the ’70s gave birth to horrendous pantsuits for men.

power felt body heat charging nantechnology

image via Wake Forest University

By layering these compounds, lead researcher and grad student Corey A. Hewitt (shown above) and team, under the guidance of center director David Carroll, discovered that they could create a fabric, dubbed Power Felt, that converts body heat into electricity. The field is known as thermoelectricity, and their discovery could lead to harvesting wasted energy not merely from body heat—to create “smart” fabrics that warm or cool the wearer, or even recharge a cell phone—to capturing waste heat from the exhaust of a vehicle to provide onboard engine diagnostics, for example, or an interactive menu that allows owners to run a GPS system.

So far, the outrageous cost of bismuth telluride—$455 a pound, but still the most widely used compound in consumer-oriented thermoelectric products—has prevented large-scale development of such useful products. Now, thanks to nanotech, seat cover fabrics in your car could keep you on track and on time at about the same cost as quality replacement seat covers. (Just so they don’t get too smart and start telling us how to drive!)