We often talk about how tightly mobile technologies are now woven into the fabric of our lives. But up until recently, that’s just been a metaphor. According to recently published research from a team of scientists at the University of South Carolina, however, in the future we may see more literal translations of this theme.
Xiaodong Li, a professor of mechanical engineering at USC, envisions a future in which mobile devices are more than just something we carry in our pockets or backpacks. He predicts that soon, electronic devices will be a part of the very clothes on our back. Working with post-doctoral associate Lihong Bao, Li figured out a way to turn the material in a cotton T-shirt into a source of electrical power.
Proving that sometimes magnificent things come from the humblest beginnings, Li started with a simple cotton t-shirt purchased from a local discount store. Back at the lab, the scientists soaked the shirt in a solution of fluoride, dried it and baked it at high temperature. All the oxygen was first sucked out of the oven to make sure the shirt wouldn’t burst into flames.
Although the t-shirt looked and felt very similar to before it when into the oven, the treatment caused a very important transformation to take place: infrared spectroscopy revealed that the shirt’s fibers had been converted from cellulose to activated carbon. By using small swatches of the fabric as an electrode, the researchers showed that the flexible material, which the team calls “activated carbon textile,” acts as a capacitor and has the ability to store an electrical charge. Coating the shirt’s individual fibers in the activated carbon textile with “nanoflowers” of manganese oxide only intensifies the effect, turning it into a stable, high-performing supercapacitor.
Although they aren’t the first to experiment with electrified textiles, Li and Bao’s invention has an important advantage. “Previous methods used oil or environmentally unfriendly chemicals as starting materials,” Li said in a release. “Those processes are complicated and produce harmful side products. Our method is a very inexpensive, green process.”