Supercapacitor thread breakthrough could enable power from clothing

A new scientific breakthrough means that mass produced affordable clothing could become the power source for phones, tablets and IoT devices.

Supercapacitors, which store energy without a chemical reaction, can be charged and discharged almost indefinitely and are already ubiquitous as back-up power in phones, PCs and tablets. Scientists have been attempting for years to make a supercapacitor small enough to be integrated into fibres and yet powerful enough to generate sufficient charge. Supercapacitor thread that is fine enough to be built into cloth could enable garments to translate the sun’s energy into electricity, using photovoltaic fibres based on the dye sensitized solar cell.

However, scientists and engineers have never been able to generate a potential difference high enough to make the amount of electricity generated significant. The highest charge, to date, sustainable in a fibre based supercapacitor has been 1v, whereas devices commonly need a minimum potential difference of 1.5 volts in order to accept charge.

Now a joint research project by Professors David Harrison and John Fyson, Dr Yanmeng Xu, Dr Fulian Qiu and Ruirong Zhang in Brunel’s Department of Design has finally uncovered a new technique that pushes supercapacitor thread through the charge barrier. Their research investigated way to use a multi-layered structure with two sequential capacitive layers in order to aggregate their capacity to up to 2V. However, Brunel has now released a paper explaining how it has achieved exactly that.

The team wanted to address mass production of these fibres issues, said Professor Harrison, so the collaborators developed a process to semi-automatically coat stainless steel wire the thickness of a human hair with eight separate layers.

“We have shown we can produce a multi-layered structure with two sequential capacitive layers capable of producing up to 2V. Breaking the 1V threshold is important,” said Harrison.

The Development of Textiles for Electrical Energy Generation and Storage project work at Brunel is part of the EU-sponsored Powerweave programme which brings together researchers from seven countries to produce textiles which can both generate and store power.

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