'Power' clothing nearer to reality

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 09:51 24/07/2012
LED suit
LIGHT FANTASTIC: Clothing that can generate electricity and help power gadgets may be a step closer.

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Clothing that can generate electricity and help power gadgets such as intelligent sports shoes and heart rate monitors may be a step closer thanks to research being carried out at Auckland University.

Scientists have already developed a rubbery compound that generates electricity when stretched and can be worn as clothing or built into the heels of shoes.

Now, Auckland's Bioengineering Institute says that after a six-year effort, it has developed circuitry that is soft and flexible enough to efficiently harvest energy from the material.

Team member Ben O'Brien said the institute was talking to businesses about the potential of its technology, which got a "runner-up" award at the CleanEquity investor conference in Monaco in March.

"We have definitely got interest. Previously 'artificial muscle' generators were seen as impracticable because they required bulky, rigid and expensive external electronics.

"Our artificial muscle generators, because of their circuitry, are lightweight, inexpensive and compact."

Most people immediately thought of the opportunity to power smartphones or MP3 players as they walked or ran. But O'Brien said while that might make sense in undeveloped countries where not everyone had mains power to charge devices at night, there could be practical complications connecting such devices to clothing.

Artificial muscles were best incorporated into shoes or into clothing worn close to the chest, powered by breathing, he said.

Adidas sells a range of sports shoes that are designed to log users' movements and assist with training and coaching and which could be an ideal candidate for the technology, O'Brien said.

"There are people selling chest straps that measure your breathing and heart rate. You can imagine generating power from breathing to power those sorts of devices."

"One idea some other people have floated is using shoes as portable 'hot spots' so your phone only has to connect a short distance, preserving its battery."

As well as being an environmental problem, powering gadgets using batteries detracted from people’s enjoyment of them, O'Brien said.

"There are lots of people doing research into artificial muscle technology. What we are good at is the control electronics."

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- The Dominion Post

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