Smart watches, smart glasses, Fitbits... smart technology is everywhere today! The market for wearables has become inundated with version after version of different accessories to mass-market. There is constant improvement happening in the industry and everyone's competing to be the first-to-market with the latest and greatest.
So what’s next for this industry? Smartwear powered by good ‘ole thermoelectric energy.
Current wearable woes
Wearable potential reaches far beyond the fitness world into medical, military and general health. The need for highly intelligent technology in these fields will continue to drive development - mainly in smart clothing. Currently, smartwear lacks data accuracy and technical performance for most customers. Smart clothing shares these limitations, but mainly with battery power.
The primary concern is their bulkiness. The last thing you want cramping your workout style is a battery pack. It could become damaged if you accidentally bump into something, or just be really uncomfortable.
Heat generated from batteries poses another issue. The level of output could burn through the fabric, or even worse, your skin. You could replace these standard batteries with solid-state batteries, but what about wear and tear? Basic hygiene practices could turn your wearable into just another shirt.
While batteries might be okay for the Apple watches of the world, it’s not ideal for clothing. Scientists are constantly pushing themselves to develop better options, faster. Advancements in thermoelectric applications could be the key to extended-life wearables.
Thermoelectrics in the marketplace
In early 2019, researchers at the University of Massachusetts discovered a way to generate 10.5 millivolts of power from a fabric wearable bracelet. The team developed a cotton wearable (thick enough to insulate) from a toxin-free, hypoallergenic material. They applied a vapor-deposited strip coated in PEDOT-Cl needed to conduct the electricity. By using body heat on one side and cool air on the other, an electrical current was created!
The study concluded this type of energy harvesting is best suited for extreme climates in order to generate large amounts of electricity. In desert-like conditions the body could act as the “cool” and hot air could act as the “heat”. Researchers predicted technology like this could be used to steadily charge a battery pack vs replacing the battery all together. But hey, it’s a start!
In early 2020, a research group in Saudi Arabia successfully created a self-healing, self-powering material. Their team used a similar thermoelectric polymer, PETOT:PSS, and Triton X-100 to create a sticky-like bonding. The mixture was then layered in strips using 3-D printing and tested for stretchability and electrical output.
The material generated 12.2 nanowatts of power at a 32 degrees celsius difference between sides. The material even generated a steady level of energy when stretched to a third longer than the original size. They then tested its self-healing abilities while it powered a light. Upon slicing the new fabric, the material healed itself in under a second and maintained 85% of electrical output.
Insane - we know.
There are so many opportunities to advance thermoelectric wearables in the medical and military fields. Adding things like microbial layers and special sensors could provide better answers and communication for doctors, patients, military command bases and soldiers alike.
Thermoelectric applications are not going anywhere. Be on the lookout for innovations in these types of wearables in the future! We may be using these sooner than you think.