Phone-charging clothes material could go on sale in 'a few years'

The man behind the new solar-powered wearable tech on how he did it and what he wants to do with it.
Alice Cooke
Solar panels
The material that charges your phone.

Interesting Engineering

  • This new textile has 1,200 solar cells and can charge your phone or smartwatch
  • Dr. Hughes-Riley hopes the tech will be commercially viable “in a few years”
  • He is now developing manufacturing techniques to produce e-yarns in high quantities
Phone-charging clothes material could go on sale in 'a few years'
Solar panels

Interesting Engineering

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Researchers from Nottingham Trent University have invented textiles that can charge a smartwatch or mobile phone. They achieved this by embedding the material with more than a thousand miniature solar cells.

These cells have the capacity to harness 400 milliwatts (mWatts) of solar energy and are engineered to handle the same forces as everyday clothing. And they can be safely washed in a machine with other laundry at 40°C.

The tiny solar cells measure 5mm by 1.5mm (0.19 inches by 0.06 inches) each , and the team behind the development say they’re both practical and comfortable to wear.

Dr. Theodore Hughes-Riley, associate professor of Electronic Textiles and part of the Advanced Textiles Research Group at the Nottingham Trent University School of Art & Design, led the team behind the development.

So, to find about more about how they went about the research, what inspired it, and what exactly they’re going to do with it, we caught up with Dr. Hughes-Riley to get some answers.

Interesting Engineering: What prompted this research in the first place?

Dr. Hughes-Riley: Both electronic textiles and wearable devices require a power source, which often takes the form of a battery. The impetus of this work has been to develop a lightweight and unobtrusive portable power source for these devices. This might not completely replace the battery for some applications, but could provide a portable charging solution.

Did you achieve what you set out to?

We set out to produce a relatively large textile solar panel with normal textile properties, and we achieved this. The final panel is deformable, breathable like a normal textile, and soft to the touch.

Were there any other aims to the work?

The production of this textile solar panel included a lot of manual processes, which made producing it quite time-consuming. Moving forwards, we hope to automate more of the production process so that we can produce textile solar panels like this quickly.

What implications does this discovery have going forward?

This textile solar panel is currently a prototype, but the hope in the future is that we might be able to integrate this type of technology into commercial products.

How long do you think it might take for that to happen?

It is difficult to say. Possibly a few years.

Having made this discovery, do you think it's plausible that there are other such items that could be developed?

The core technology used to produce this textile solar panel, electronic yarn (e-yarn) technology, can and has been used to integrate other electronic components into textiles. I think that there is a lot of scope for this technology, particularly for developing textiles and garments with sensing capabilities.

This prototype gives an exciting glimpse of the future potential for e-textiles. Until now very few people would have considered that their clothing or textiles products could be used for generating electricity. And the material which we have developed, for all intents and purposes, appears and behaves the same as any ordinary textile, as it can be scrunched up and washed in a machine.

But hidden beneath the surface is a network of more than a thousand tiny photovoltaic cells that can harness the sun’s energy to charge personal devices. Electronic textiles really have the potential to change people’s relationship with technology. This prototype shows that we could do away with charging many devices at the wall, which has got to be good for the environment.

So, are there sustainable implications to this, too?

Yes, absolutely. This project shows that e-textiles can be at the forefront of sustainability and that they have the potential to reshape our existing conceptions of technology.

Through this development we have combined long-established weaving techniques with modern technology to create future products which may change people’s perceptions of clothing and electronics.

The new material’s solar cells are made from silicon, making them breathable and chemically stable. And our experiments indicated that the material generated a power output of 335.3 mWatts in 0.86 sunlight and up to 394 mWatts in 1.0 sunlight.

What are you and the team working on now, as a result of these findings?

We are currently working on developing manufacturing techniques to produce electronic yarns in high quantities. Some of the knowledge that we established creating the large woven textile solar panel was helpful in furthering this work.


Quickfire questions

What or who inspires you?

My uncle is an academic and I think that that inspired me to pursue a career in academia.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I am very goal-oriented so there is normally something that I am striving to accomplish in a day

What makes you smile?


What is your greatest achievement to date?

I wrote an article reviewing the history of e-textiles a few years back and that has been well-received by the community.

What is your biggest regret?

I have travelled a lot, but I would still say my biggest regret is not travelling more.

What would you say to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Electronic textiles and wearable technologies are a growing areas, so there are opportunities to work in these areas if you have an interest in them.

What advice would you give your younger self?