As technology advances in leaps and bounds with ever more versatile and advanced products, incredible creative design, and much more, there remain a few restraints on what our phones and computers can do, and especially what they look like. One of the most basic of these is the rigidity of the batteries we use, but that may be changing soon. Xiaodong Li of the University of South Carolina, has discovered that simple cotton fibers are capable of storing large amounts of energy, and is in the process of developing a new way to create cheap, flexible fabrics that store significant amounts of energy. Michael J. Coren of Fast Co.Exist reports,
Li devised a process that “converts insulating cotton T-shirt textiles into highly conductive and flexible activated carbon textiles.” In other words, it changes the fibers that make up the fabric into wires and (energy-storing) capacitors. Li bought a T-shirt at a local discount store, soaked it in a fluoride solution, and heated it in an oxygen-free environment to change the cotton fibers’ cellulose into activated carbon. While this alone was enough to create a conductive material, Li’s team coated the activated carbon fibers with nano-layers of manganese oxide, which boosted the T-shirts performance.
While these new “hybrid fabrics” may not resemble anyone’s former white T-shirts (the process turns it black, for one), the material retains enough flexibility and charge to prove useful as a pliable battery. “By stacking these supercapacitors up, we should be able to charge portable electronic devices such as cell phones,” Li says.
This may be a turning point for the future of technology, and it would be interesting to see how the experiments with these new flexible batteries turn out. A heap of possibilities for the social dimensions of the technological innovation come to mind, the foremost of which is the possibility of bringing at least basic power to the remotest rural areas. In fact, I can almost envision a world where the t-shirts themselves are energized with solar power, and in turn can be used to charge all our electronic devices. Perhaps a little utopian, but a nice vision.