By Michael Lotti
What it is
Nonwoven, washable cloth that continuously generates an electric current.
How it works
The thermoelectric effect, which is the tendency of charged particles to move from warm to cold parts of metals, ceramics, fibers, and other materials.
“This fabric continuously generates small amounts of electricity, so it’s ideal for large applications,” says David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University. House wrap, roofing underlayment and sound deadening materials in cars and airplanes are just a few examples. Carroll thinks that smaller applications, such as an iPhone case or a wristband, are possible in the near future.
Obstacles to development
Ceramic materials claim the lion’s share of thermoelectric research dollars, says Carroll, leaving little for developing fabrics. “Ceramics are more efficient in the short run, so funding agencies don’t notice the advantages of a continuously generating, non-brittle energy source,” Carroll explains. Limited research funds mean slower development and a high cost per square foot. “A corporate partner would help us make large amounts and bring down the price.”