Wearable electronics are nothing new, but the technology has been limited by the question of how to power them for long periods without toting around a bulky charge storing device. Not any longer. Thanks to UMass Amherst materials scientist Trisha L. Andrew, a battery can now be stitched directly into your lapel.
Andrew and her colleagues have developed a method of weaving nylon, polyester, and a conductive silver fiber into densely twisted strands that can be sewn into textiles, creating a flexible weave of aligned electrodes. The resulting paper-like material has a high charge storage capacity relative to its size, one that far outperforms batteries.
Why stitch a bunch of highly conductive, electrochemically active materials into textiles that touch your body? The UMass team has shown that the wearable supercapacitors are light, flexible, washable, breathable, and have been successfully integrated into shirts, shoes, coats, and pants. It’s a breakthrough with implications that extend far beyond consumer electronics.
The UMass team is using embroidered charge-storage arrays to build self-powered smart garments that can “monitor a person’s gait and joint movements throughout a normal day.” Think kinetic science, orthopedic surgery, neuroscience, advanced wound healing, vital-sign monitors, and adaptive physical therapy for people with disabilities—just for starters.
Wearable biosensors are also being tested in navigation systems, biochemistry fields, and in the development of advanced textiles that can communicate, transform, conduct energy, and even grow. When you consider how e-textiles could aid athletes, first responders, emergency medics, and troops on the ground, you begin to understand the potential of micro-supercapacitors like the ones Andrew and her UMass colleagues have created.
Recent research has shown that the technology is now scalable and no longer as prohibitively expensive as it was for textile scientists of yore. So hang onto your hats, folks—or maybe that old peacoat from college. It might just have a second MacGyvered life as an electrolyte-ion-infused high-capacity energy-storage device.