Electricity can be generated by many different means. Solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectricity, natural gas, coal, and geothermal vents are many of the ways we generate electricity. But now, David Carroll, a nanotechnologist from Wake Forest University has developed a thermoelectric fabric he calls power felt that generates electricity from heat or movement.
The fabric is created using carbon nanotubes, which converts heat and motion energy into usable electricity. Carroll foresees the fabric being sewn into smart phone cases, wrapped around appliances or entire homes, and worn in clothing, where it could charge your phone and power medical devices that monitor your health. Because of the felt’s composition, it actually feels like wool felt, unlike the ceramics in other thermoelectric materials. The fabric is incredibly versatile – from being wrapped around a car’s tail pipe to capture lost heat, to being woven into our clothing to recharge our phones – and very cheap to manufacture. It costs about 25 cents for a couple square feet, enough to wrap up a laptop.
The medical applications of power felt are astounding. Not only does an electricity generating fabric reduce the need for batteries for sensors, but it can also power other medical devices that can check blood sugar levels, administer insulin and other injectables, and even monitor a patient’s risk of falling. These “high-performance clothes,” as Carroll calls them, eliminate the need for bulky, heavy batteries and are easily worn by children and elderly patients alike. In addition, the felt itself functions as a sensor for temperature. As Carroll puts it, “It’s creating power from that temperature, but it is also measuring it. If you measure temperature locally and you do it in the right way, you can know an awful lot about a person and their physiology.”
Power felt isn’t solely limited to just recharging your phone in your pocket or monitoring your vitals through your clothes. It can be bundled with other energy options, potentially doubling output. An example that Carroll gives is taking a cheap 12% efficiency solar panel and adding power felt to the back of it and letting it drape off of it. The solar panel will capture some light, the power felt will capture some heat, and in the event of a breeze, the power felt will also capture energy through the movement of the fabric. This can get you about 30% efficiency in power generation. The theoretical limit of solar cells is 33.7%, and most fall well below that mark.
Power felt, used in the aforementioned way, is like having a solar panel and wind turbine running at once, for a small fraction of the cost. Typically, there is always a light breeze blowing, even after the sun has set, which allows power felt to generate electricity at night. The versatility of the material and its low cost will make it a powerful contender in the alternative energy market.
Image courtesy of Wake Forest University
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