Wearable Power: Drexel University Blazes the Trail for Fabric Batteries

Layla El Tannir, for GPA -- Innovation is at the heart of Drexel University’s culture.

Kristy Jost, alumni of Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and the College of Engineering is living proof that being innovative leads to great things. Jost’s revolutionary, fashion-centric research at Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Nanomaterials Institute and the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab is aimed at developing “fabric batteries” to ultimately power runway-worthy smart collections.

Fabric batteries are essentially supercapacitors made of non-toxic, flexible textiles, with the ability to operate small electronics such as iPhones. Smart garments do exist, but this development will take things to a new level in the apparel industry, which could potentially broaden Philadelphia’s global impact. Currently, smart garments have limited abilities of sense and heat and they rely on big batteries or trailing electrical cords. Through their innovations, Jost and her team are aiming to integrate energy storage into garments that can be manufactured through methods already widely used in the apparel industry.

Supercapacitors are comprised of four main components: an electrode, current collector, electrolyte and separator. The first step in making a textile supercapacitor is converting conventional charge-storing materials into yarns. Once yarns are fabricated they can be assembled into full fabrics. The communication and logic of the fabric come from antennas, designed to communicate with smart phones to relay information collected from the sensors. The energy harvesting fabric systems can generate energy from body movements, sunlight, body heat or even Wi-Fi. This collected energy can be stored in a textiles supercapacitor. Energy storing fabrics, like textile supercapacitors, have the potential to power a variety of other wearable electronics, including sensors, communication devices or small portable devices.

To delve briefly into the science behind this wearable technology, oppositely charged ions are attracted to the surface of electrically charged carbon, where they form a double layer capacitance, or a system that can store an electrical charge. The electrical energy is stored between the ions and carbon. Steel yarn is used to increase the conductivity, while the activated carbon yarn absorbs the ions. Once the carbon/steel yarns are assembled they can be knitted into full devices. The final cloth can have striped alternating electrodes that can also act as a design component.

Wearable power can be applied beyond the runway. The military would benefit from the application of wearable power to help track soldiers and monitor their vitals. Their clothing would not need to adapt, rather the design of the fabric batteries would be tailored to the materials and style of military uniform. The tracking function could be implemented in hospitals, combat or even outer space.

There is also the potential for commercial use of wearable power. It is a unique product with multiple characteristics that create more of a competitive edge for the U.S. fashion industry and apparel market. To have a product of this caliber ignited, manufactured and exported from Philadelphia will increase its stake on the fashion front, shed a light on the talent of the city and act as a global portal to showcase Drexel’s vision.

As a leader in wearable technology, Philadelphia could build relationships with people and businesses at multiple divisions, including trade, retail, manufacturing and more. It is not unrealistic to forecast a high demand for a product with a unique flare and diverse functionality.

Photo courtesy of Drexel University.