Futuristic Fabric

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Thanks to new technology under development in Gearing Hall by Jonathan Chen, professor of textiles and apparel, it may soon be possible to charge medical equipment from a tent or plug your cell phone into your backpack. Chen recently patented a supercapacitor (i.e., a power-storing device that acts as an alternative to a rechargeable battery) constructed from fabric.

“Smart clothing stores energy within fabric and gives us many new options over the traditional, metal-based supercapacitor,” Chen says. “Soldiers, emergency workers – the possibilities of use are endless with so many people going into remote areas without a steady energy supply.” 

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To build the supercapacitor, Chen sandwiches different layers of carbon-based, commercially available fabric between two conductive units. A lightweight mesh and layers of two electrodes – positive and the negative ends of the supercapacitor –  complete the design. Treated with special chemical baths, the layers either conduct a current or store a charge. 

Once attached to a power source, like a solar cell, the supercapacitor stores energy. 

Chen’s tests show that a fully charged two-inch square of fabric holds one volt of energy. In other words, a few square inches of fabric could run an LED light for a few hours. 

“So far, the supercapacitor can recharge 10,000 times without much of a loss of charge,” Chen says. “Moving or damaging the fabric does not affect performance. This material is super strong and reliable so that even in battle – marked with a bullet hole – the battery should still function well.”