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Originally published February 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 14, 2008 at 12:18 AM

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Power-generating clothes? Keep your shirt on

Someday, your shirt might be able to power your iPod just by doing the normal stuff expected of a shirt. Scientists have developed a way...

The Associated Press

BOSTON — Someday, your shirt might be able to power your iPod just by doing the normal stuff expected of a shirt.

Scientists have developed a way to generate electricity by jostling fabric with tiny wires woven inside, raising the prospect of textiles that produce power simply by being stretched, rustled or ruffled by a breeze.

The research, described in the new edition of the journal Nature, combines the precision of nanotechnology with the elegant principle known as the piezoelectric effect, in which electricity is generated when pressure is applied to certain materials.

While the piezoelectric effect has been understood at least as far back as the 19th century, it is getting creative new looks, as concerns about energy supplies are inspiring quests for alternative power sources.

For example, a Japanese railway has experimented with mats, placed under turnstiles, that translate the pressure from thousands of commuters' footfalls into usable power. French scientists have proposed capturing energy from raindrops hitting a structure with piezoelectric properties.

For the research described in Nature, Zhong Lin Wang and colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology covered individual fibers of fabric with nanowires made of zinc oxide. These wires are 50 nanometers in diameter, 1,800 times thinner than a human hair.

Alternating fibers are coated with gold. As one strand of the fabric is stretched against another, the nanowires on one fiber rub against the gold-coated ones on the other, like the teeth of two bottle brushes. The resulting tension and pressure generate a piezoelectric charge that is captured by the gold and can be fed into a circuit.

The allure of the idea is that it doesn't take unusual movement to generate usable electricity. Pretty much anything someone does while wearing a piezoelectric shirt would be productive.

Wang has coaxed the wires to grow around strands of yarn in a few square millimeters of fabric but has not made sizable pieces yet. He estimated that one square meter of nanowire-infused fabric would produce about 80 milliwatts of electricity, enough to recharge portable music players.

Although Wang used gold in the research, he expects less-expensive metals would work just as well. Whatever is used, it would be used in such tiny increments that he does not think it would substantially increase the clothing's weight.

However, there is one big hurdle to the advent of power shirts. Zinc oxide isn't waterproof. The Georgia Tech team must figure out how to protectively coat the nanowires — or else one trip through the washing machine or one rainy day would rob these fabrics of their magic.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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