Nanotechnology may help turn fabrics, paper into lightweight batteries

A Visitor at a Nanotechnology Exhibition in Bangalore.

 An engineer has found a way to cheaply and efficiently manufacture lightweight paper batteries and super-capacitors, as well as stretchable, conductive textiles known as “eTextiles” – capable of storing energy while retaining the mechanical properties of ordinary paper or fabric.

Like batteries, super-capacitors store energy, but by electrostatic rather than chemical means.

Stanford engineer Yi Cui made the development by dipping ordinary paper or fabric in a special ink infused with nanoparticles.

Cui’s team has even envisioned numerous functional uses for their inventions. Homes of the future could one day be lined with energy-storing wallpaper. Gadget lovers would be able to charge their portable appliances on the go, simply plugging them into an outlet woven into their T-shirts. Energy textiles might also be used to create moving-display apparel, reactive high-performance sportswear and wearable power for a soldier’s battle gear.

The key ingredients in developing these high-tech products are not visible to the human eye. Nanostructures, which can be assembled in patterns that allow them to transport electricity, may provide the solutions to a number of problems encountered with electrical storage devices currently available on the market.

The type of nanoparticle used in the Cui group’s experimental devices varies according to the intended function of the product – lithium cobalt oxide is a common compound used for batteries, while single-walled carbon nanotubes, or SWNTs, are used for super-capacitors.

Cui, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, leads a research group that investigates new applications of nanoscale materials. The objective, said Cui, is not only to supply answers to theoretical inquiries but also to pursue projects with practical value. Recently, his team has focused on ways to integrate nanotechnology into the realm of energy development.

“Energy storage is a pretty old research field,” said Cui. “Super-capacitors, batteries – those things are old. How do you really make a revolutionary impact in this field? It requires quite a dramatic difference of thinking.” Cui added.

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