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Many wearable biosensors, data transmitters and similar tech advances for personalized health monitoring have now been "creatively miniaturized," says materials chemist Trisha Andrew at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but they require a lot of energy, and power sources can be bulky and heavy. Now she and her Ph.D. student Linden Allison report that they have developed a fabric that can harvest body heat to power small wearable microelectronics such as activity trackers.
Writing in an early online edition of Advanced Materials Technologies, Andrew and Allison explain that in theory, body heat can produce power by taking advantage of the difference between body temperature and ambient cooler air, a "thermoelectric" effect. Materials with high electrical conductivity and low thermal conductivity can move electrical charge from a warm region toward a cooler one in this way.
Research - Amounts - Power - Body - Workday
Some research has shown that small amounts of power can be harvested from a human body over an eight-hour workday, but the special materials needed at present are either very expensive, toxic or inefficient, they point out. Andrew says, "What we have developed is a way to inexpensively vapor-print biocompatible, flexible and lightweight polymer films made of everyday, abundant materials onto cotton fabrics that have high enough thermoelectric properties to yield fairly high thermal voltage, enough to power a small device."
For this work, the researchers took advantage of the naturally low heat transport properties of wool and cotton to create thermoelectric garments that can maintain a temperature gradient across an electronic device known as a thermopile, which converts heat to electrical energy even over long periods of continuous wear. This is a practical consideration to insure that the conductive material is going to be electrically, mechanically and thermally stable over time, Andrew notes.
Property - Fabrics - Problem
"Essentially, we capitalized on the basic insulating property of fabrics to solve a long-standing problem...
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