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About this Article
Written by: Amy Huang
Written on: December 7th, 2011
Tags: material science, mechanical engineering, physics, electrical engineering, energy & sustainability, ergonomics
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About the Author
Amy Huang was a senior at USC majoring in Industrial and Systems Engineering with a minor in Marketing. In her spare time she enjoyed traveling, baking, and photography.
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Volume XIII Issue III > Power-Generating Fashion: A Look into Smart Textiles
Technology has advanced the functions of clothing to a new level through the creation of power-generating textiles. These materials are made of solar cell or piezoelectric fabric that will allow enough electricity to be generated to recharge a small, portable electronic device. With additional engineering and research, clothing that can recharge any portable electronic device may become the next wave in staying connected without worrying about battery life.

Introduction

Technological advances have allowed many science-fiction fantasies to become reality, with smart textiles being one of them. Smart textiles are clothing materials that are woven or embedded with advanced properties that can sense changing environment conditions or stimuli from a thermal, chemical, mechanical, electrical, or other source. There are currently many forms of smart textiles on the market, with Gore-Tex fabric being one example (Fig. 1). Gore-Tex is considered a smart textile because its laminated membrane technology restricts water and moisture to only flow in one direction. The material is also breathable, lightweight, and waterproof [1]. Engineers and researchers are currently developing smart textiles that can create enough electricity to power up an MP3 player, a cell phone, or similarly small electronic device. Two types of these power-generating textiles are solar cell fabric and piezoelectric fabric.
MayhayMate/Wikimedia​ Commons
Figure 1: Gore-Tex fabric is a smart textile that responds to changes in its environment, such as rain and sweat.

Solar Cell Fabric

Nowadays, most people own some sort of portable electronic device, whether it is an MP3 player, mobile phone, or camera. However, all these devices run out of power after a certain period of time. Fortunately, solar cell fabric can create enough power to charge these devices. Solar cell fabric is a smart textile embedded with photovoltaic cells that generate electricity under light exposure. Although it may seem difficult to generate enough electricity to power up an electronic device, the energy demand of portable electronic devices is low enough that clothing integrated with solar cells are able to power most electronics [2]. However, the tradeoff is a few hours spent under the sun.

Technology behind Solar Cell Fabric

Solar cell fabric and solar-powered calculators are actually similar in technology. The embedded solar cells use tiny rods of cadmium selenide, a material similarly used in computer chips, which is suspended in an organic polymer or plastic. When the cell is exposed to light, a certain portion of it is absorbed in the material [3].
The electrons flow freely through the rod and create “positive” and “negative” terminals, like a battery. By placing metal contacts on the top and bottom of the cell, the current generated can be taken and used to power a small electronic device. During lab tests, a prototype solar cell about 200 nanometers thick (around one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair) can produce just over half the voltage of a common flashlight battery [3]. Some jackets are being developed with integrated photovoltaic cells that can provide more than 40 hours of music after three hours of sunlight exposure [2].