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Nanotech Fiber Material Converts Heat to Electricity

Corey Hewitt (Wake Forest University)

Corey Hewitt (Wake Forest University)

Researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina have developed a fiber-like material with the ability to convert heat, such as body heat, into electric power. The team, which includes researchers from universities in New Zealand and Korea, and the company NanoTechLabs Inc. in nearby Yadkinville, North Carolina published its findings online in the journal Nano Letters (paid subscription required).

Doctoral student Corey Hewitt (pictured left) in the Wake Forest Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials led the team that created the new material called Power Felt. The material is made from composite films of carbon nanoscale tubes — 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter — combined with a polyvinylidene fluoride plastic, and layered into a felt-like fabric.

When Power Felt is exposed to difference in temperatures, the material generates an electric charge. This property is not unique to Power Felt. The current standard for thermoelectric materials, however, is bismuth telluride, a compound that can cost $1,000 per kilogram. The researchers who developed Power Felt believe that it can be scaled into production, where adding the material to a cell phone cover, for example, would cost about $1.00.

The versatile material could have applications such as power generation in clothing or in building insulation, or sensors on sports equipment or medical devices. “I imagine being able to make a jacket with a completely thermoelectric inside liner that gathers warmth from body heat,” says Hewitt, “while the exterior remains cold from the outside temperature. David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, adds “Literally, just by sitting on your phone, Power Felt could provide relief during power outages or accidents.”

Wake Forest says the university is in talks with investors to produce Power Felt commercially.

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