Researchers from Scotland and Ireland have collaborated to develop a way for harnessing clothing’s kinetic energy to power small electronics.

Despite earlier failed attempts, the multi-disciplined team, lead by researchers at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University’s Research Institute for Flexible Materials, is experimenting with the idea of employing triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs) to collect electricity from garments.

Professor George Stylios, from Heriot-Watt’s School of Textiles, commented: “Our biggest challenge is increasing our power output in order to make this a viable option. For example, textile TENGs currently produce power in the microwatt to milliwatt range. We need to drastically increase the level of friction in order to achieve an output of hundreds of milliwatts, which is required to power most mobile devices.”

An idea toyed with before in academia, the UK-based researchers are vying to leverage the friction generated by wearing clothes to power TENGs. Previous efforts have failed on the basis that these flexible fabrics fail to harness enough energy to provide meaningful value.

As such, the team at Heriot-Watts, along with its colleagues in Ireland, have made adjustments with the hope that it’ll offer a much needed boost to the amount of electricity stored.

“The fabric type and mechanics, as well as the fabric’s surface interface, are critical in enabling us to generate enough energy through the coupling effect of motion and nanotechnology to provide a renewable source of electricity,” Stylios explained.

“Our solution to this challenge is to develop an energy-generating fabric material that can be used in any clothing. We want to reduce friction by applying modern material processing techniques to create micron-sized fiber-working surfaces.”

The researchers have refuted any claims that the electricity created and stored in fabrics is hazardous, claiming that “current outputs are quite low, causing no harm to the user.”

“The focus would be in areas of body maximum contact such as in the side of elbows.

“Once we have generated and stored this energy the question is how do we transfer this into mobile devices? We have a couple of ways for doing this. Firstly, we can store the electricity in a small polymer battery on the clothing itself, but my preference is the second option of directly transferring the electricity wirelessly, by simply carrying our phone in our pocket,” Stylios concluded.