When your phone battery starts to die in the future, you won’t have to go hunting for an outlet. Instead, you can just slip on a Back to the Future-inspired jacket and put the phone in your pocket, thanks to a new textile that can harness the power of the sun and use it to charge devices.
A research team at the University of Central Florida created a thin copper ribbon with a solar cell on one side and a supercapacitor on the other, which can be implanted into the fabric of everyday clothing. They described their development process in a paper published Friday in Nature Communications.
The solar cells on the ribbon are made from perovskite, a material used in other solar panels. On the back of the ribbon, the supercapacitor uses copper nanotubes and manganese oxide to store energy generated by the solar cells.
Jayan Thomas, the lead researcher on the project, was inspired by Marty McFly’s self-lacing shoes in Back to the Future. If shoes could charge themselves after some time in the sun, they wouldn’t need three hours of charging with a cable.
The textile probably won’t be used on Nikes anytime soon, but Thomas sees it powering other technology for military and civilian consumers. Rather than packing around heavy rechargeable batteries, for example, troops can charge important devices with solar panels woven into their uniform. Civilians might use it to power wearables and phones.
The solar cells are lightweight and protected from the elements by a special coating, so putting them on outdoor surfaces is an easy way to generate extra energy. Thomas also says they can be used on buildings and cars.
We probably won’t see solar-powered clothing heading down fashion runways anytime soon, but Back to the Future’s future might one day be a reality.