FutureWatch: Nanofibers to Power Solar Clothing

What if we could have tents and car upholstery and clothes woven from solar-powered yarn that had lithium-ion battery storage woven into thebackside of it?

That’s exactly the technology that Dr. Ray Baughman and his team atthe Nanotech Institute at the University of Texas in Dallas havecreated.

The fibers that Baughman and his team have designed and submitted for patents aren’t just solar energy harvesters and battery storage. Theyarns, which can contain various powders and nanofibers used forconducting electric charges, are created using a technique calledbiscrolling.

The technique incorporates conductive properties into webs of super-strong carbon nanotubes.

“These webs are an unusual state of matter in the sense that they can be lighter than air but still stronger, on a per-weight basis, thansteel,” Baughman said.

He said the yarns can be constructed so that one side of them iscoated with solar energy harvesting material and the other side withbattery powder, turning the inside of the yarn into one big batteryelectrode.

Baughman and his team have also tested the biscrolled nanotubes tosee if they could work as hydrogen fuel cells and other majorenergy-harvesting and conducting tools with a lot of success, he said.

The technology could also be used to create super-strong synthetic muscles, he said.

“Solar is actually where we’re the least advanced with our demonstrations,” Baughman said.

But there is a lot of interest in the team’s solar research, he said.

“Right now, it costs about $100 a gallon to get into the battlefieldin Afghanistan, for example,” Baughman said. “It would be very nice tohave an energy-harvesting textile you could roll out and put over yourtent.”

The military has been extremely interested in the NanotechInstitute’s research, Baughman said. The Air Force is particularlyinterested in building a light-weight plane using the institute’s solar-harvesting and battery-storage textiles.

If these textiles take off, they could be used in nearly everything.We could wear solar-energy harvesting coats and have solar-absorbingupholstery in our electric cars of the future.

The technology is not yet ready for the commercial market, Baughman said. But he suspects it will be within the next five years.

“We’ve had a lot of companies approach us who are interested in this,” Baughman said.

Image courtesy of cheme.cornell.edu.

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