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Soon you could be charging your phone using power from your clothes

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Socket chargers may soon become a thing of the past. We already have wireless charging mats, and soon we might have clothes that charge our phones too. 

University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences has partnered with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to expand military technology applications, including the use of carbon nanotubes (CNT) to charge electronics.

The team is focusing on the unique properties of CNT, like their strong surface area that is conductive and heat resistant, to develop “smart” materials.

The team used a process called chemical vapour deposition to develop the nanotubes. In chemical vapour deposition, carbon-containing gas is introduced to a vacuum chamber with a silicon wafer under heat. When the gas interacts with crystallising silicone particles in the chamber, it breaks down and reforms as a nanotube. The structure continues to grow until the desired size is reached. The unique technique proposed by the team resulted in 100-120 per cent increase in the tensile strength of the technology.

Any source of carbon can be used as a reactant, even Girl Scout cookies as proved one resourceful group on the team.

The team then stretched the nanotube around an industrial spool creating a thread resembling a spider’s silk, only much stronger. Carbon nanotubes are the most durable materials yet discovered. In 2000 a multi-walled nanotube was shown to have a tensile strength that would be able to endure tension of 6,422 kg on a cable with a cross section of 1 square millimetre.

The thread can be sewn into fabrics, used to power devices, and perhaps much more. Such technology has many potential uses in the military. As much as one-third of the weight that soldiers carry is made up of batteries. A much lighter carbon nanotube would quite literally take a load off their shoulders.

CNT fibres might also help deliver targeted doses of medicine. If proteins can be attached to the tubes, they would attract cells that consume them. There is still more to be done. Researchers aren’t sure if carbon nanotubes are nontoxic though and some studies indicate that acute exposure can cause lung damage.

To be sure, the operation needs to be scaled up. The Cincinnati lab can produce about 45 meters of carbon nanotube at a time, but clothing production would require kilometres. Right now, synthesis is costly, so CNT is mostly used in research, but when production becomes more efficient, costs will go down. The good news is that there is no shortage of materials to make the tubing.

The Cincinnati and Air Force team isn’t the first to try to create charging textiles. In 2016 Hiral Sanghavi launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 for his startup BauBax to turn jackets, jeans, and shorts into mobile charging stations using built-in copper wire. Sanghavi cancelled the campaign before he could get the needed funding. A team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has also been researching materials that can generate electricity and act as batteries, but they are focusing on energy from physical movement and sunlight.

Carbon nanotubes are the potential future of batteries, but they are not the only recently examined uses of carbon. One of the leading authors of the Cincinnati-Air Force paper, Mark Schulz said that “manufacturing is at the cusp of a carbon renaissance,” from possible replacements for copper wire in cars, planes, or circuitry, to biometric sensors, to maybe even battery chargers in our everyday portable devices, we are only beginning to tap into the potential of carbon technology. 

That can only leave tech fan wondering: 'what next?' 

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