Will Nanotechnology Fabrics Someday Generate, Store, and Recycle Energy?


Energy costs may drive long underwear sales and nanotechnology development. In the coming decades the increasing cost of energy will drive wider temperature  ranges in buildings, warmer in summer and colder in winter.   Regulating temperatures in buildings has an energy cost, too.  Allowing wider temperature swings and reducing the rate of change heating or cooling systems must provide reduces cost, just as maintaining a smaller difference from the  temperature outside reduces cost.  As energy costs rise and building owners struggle to save money on heating and cooling, high tech synthetic fabrics and silk will become popular in the form of long underwear for the office.  This is already happening where I work, where low humidity combines with poor temperature regulation to cause me and many of my colleagues to wear light weight coats and extra layers of clothing to try to stay comfortable.

In order to maintain both office dress standards and personal comfort, today I am wearing long underwear bottoms of a fabric trademarked as Capilene, and it really helps me stay comfortable at work.  I am also wearing a cotton t-shirt under my dress shirt, though I have Capilene t-shirts as well.  I am going to try silk undergarments soon, as I would like to wear more sustainable fabrics when possible, and I have heard silk may equal the commercial fabrics in performance.  Still, as nanotechnology and other related technologies are developed it is probable they will have applications in fabrics and clothing that will directly address warmer, colder, and more variable workplaces than we have today.

At first nanotechnology may result in better wicking and insulating fabrics. As the ingredients for synthetic fibers are improved, the use of nanoparticles may create fabrics with abilities to wick moisture and stop the transfer of heat in ways not yet envisioned.  Individual fibers could be coated or mixed with engineered nanoparticles in the manufacturing phase, allowing fabric and garment makers to use the new materials with minimal change to the manufacturing process.  At the same time, looser standards for workplace temperatures will change the way people dress, and additional layers will be incorporated into popular clothing styles, thereby driving demand.

Eventually passive long underwear may not be enough and active fabrics may be developed. As energy costs rise further, nanotechnology and other technologies will combine to create fabrics that not only work better but add new functionality to our clothes.  One new feature might be to convert waste heat from the human body or the temperature differential between the human body and the surrounding environment into electricity.  This energy may be stored in tiny nano-batteries integrated into the material at the molecular level, then the energy could be released as needed to warm or cool the wearer.  In addition, the stored energy might be tapped via conductive paths woven into the fabric to power computing and communications hardware (which might, itself, be woven or otherwise integrated into the fabric).

Kinetic energy collection might be engineered into fabrics at nano-scale. A variety of research projects have created small machines that generate electricity from the movement of the human body.  Tiny pendulum-based machines have been integrated into pant legs, for example, that generate small amounts of electricity while the wearer is walking.  Taking such technology to a nano- or micro-scale and using the self-assembly techniques currently under development could yield much higher efficiencies and enable broader practical applications.

Applications like those suggested above meet a number of important goals. Sustainability will require enormous reductions in cost, especially in the provision and use of energy, and integrating energy production and storage into our clothing eliminates the need for a lot of the energy generation and conversion we use today.  While we use a lot of personal electronic technology today – cellphones and personal computers predominantly but also a variety of medical devices such as pacemakers – all of them require batteries, usually with attendant charging hardware (energy conversion) and the need to connect to the electrical grid.  With energy generation and storage features integrated into our clothing the need for such hardware could be reduced or eliminated, along with the cost involved.

Active fabrics that generate their own power open new possibilities for development. It is possible that electronic functionality such as computing and signal generation and processing could be distributed throughout items of clothing, and one’s clothes could become one’s cellphone and personal computer as well as actively cooling or heating the wearer.  Items of footwear could modify their bottom surfaces to provide better traction depending on the environment and the wearer’s activities.  Fabrics in many applications could change color and texture, become slippery or clingy as needed, or even function as video screens – imagine the fashion possibilities!

Sustainability must become a predominant goal for all of humanity, and technological development will increasingly focus on it.  The themes of energy conservation, and localized generation, storage and use of energy, will increasingly dominate our world as the decades unfold.  More ideas and new technological angles are being developed constantly, and it will be interesting to see what comes about, but the directions such research and development take will start with the dreams we dream today.  I urge everyone to dream big, to focus on the problems we have created for ourselves and life on the planet with our out-of-control population growth, and to put energy daily towards our transition from a cluelessly-propagating animal species to a species that has the foresight and understanding to create and maintain a truly sustainable civilization – something we have never done before.

As always, I appreciate your comments. — Tim

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One response to “Will Nanotechnology Fabrics Someday Generate, Store, and Recycle Energy?

  1. Jorge Lourenco

    Thanks for the great post. Just found this site. Going to post some of your articles to my facebook page.

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