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Will body heat charge our future clothing?

In general, the term Wearables or Wearable technology is used for a group of devices, like fitness trackers, safety devices, and smartwatches. All these products are thought to be worn throughout the  day. The total market is dominated by one category, and this is smartwatches. Wearables are here to stay. Due to an ongoing miniaturisation of electronic equipment and components over the last years, so called Wearables have started a victory march which has not come to an end.

Growing Market

The Wearable market still is expected to grow and is projected to reach around $60 billion by 2025.    More and more people do rely on Wearable technology to, for example, monitor their health and track their fitness parameters. Over the past months, big market players, like Apple, Fitbit and others, have made  announcements about new devices they will bring to the market soon.

However, the main blooming period is still expected to come. Applications for health care and fitness, internet of things based applications that drive the interaction between humans and electronic devices are critical to lead this development. On the other side, major obstacles still thwart a rapid development. Apart from other topics, the energy supply to Wearable devices is considered to be one of the most pressing challenges to be solved.

International Research & Initiatives

There are several research projects running exactly targeting this issue. One project, called Thermo Tex. This initiative, funded by the EU, was starting back in 2015 and ended in May 2020. One major goal was exploring the use of human body heat to power small electronic devices. Also, the scope of this programme was to demonstrate the ability of prototype thermoelectric textiles to harvest a small fraction of the wearer’s body heat under realistic conditions.

The idea itself is not new. The thermoelectric effect has been known for almost 200 years. This effect allows heat energy to be converted into electrical energy when there is a temperature difference, such as the difference between a person’s skin and the outside temperature. Electrons move from the hotter part of a material to the cooler one, and this movement of charge generates an electric potential.

One outcome of this project was the clear recommendation to cooperate with the textile industry, and to use both, their methods and expertise.

A second initiative, Smart2Go, is also trying to offer the textile industry solutions that it can use in its garments. Smart2Go is teaming up with a textile and garment manufacturer to integrate its platform with energy harvesting materials for safer workwear. The aim of the project is the creation of an autonomous energy-supply platform.

Based on the results of the project it will be possible to use a wearable without caring about recharging over its entire lifetime. Imagine a future by when it could be possible This to include features such as textiles and garments lighting up when dark. The project is also working with a sports and leisure wear company to make garments that can gather information about performance.

Challenges to overcome

The most critical challenge for wearable electronics may not be technical – although that has been a major impediment to their development and uptake so far. The ability of wearable devices to collect and store people’s private information, and the security concerns this poses, need to be resolved for wearable electronics to grow further not only in the dedicated field of power storage for textiles.

However, it is more than clear that with so many more projects running to target these questions, in future we will see the technology that enables our clothing to generate energy from our bodies and their environment.

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