Associate Professor Jayan Thomas, a nanotechnology scientist at the University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center, was inspired by Marty McFly’s self-lacing Nikes in the 1989 movie Back to the Future Part II to develop filaments that can be woven into textiles, and harvest and store the sun’s energy.

The filaments can be used to turn jackets and other clothing into wearable, solar powered batteries that never need to be plugged in. Wearable technology could possibly be revolutionized by this development one day and potential applications range from charging smartphones by simply slipping it in a pocket, to lightening the load of soldiers who now have to carry heavy loads of batteries.

This work is based on earlier groundbreaking research done by Thomas. He previously developed a cable that not only transmits energy like a normal cable, but also stores energy like a battery. An R&D 100 Award is given to the top inventions of the year worldwide and Thomas was one of the recipients last year. He is also currently working on solar cells that are semitransparent and can be applied to windows. The solar cells will allow some light to pass through while harvesting solar power at the same time.

Thomas holds joint appointments in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the College of Optics & Photonics. He explained that they make solar cells and energy-storage devices in the same lab. This led to the idea of combining these two devices. He expanded on the idea and imagined technology that could be wearable.

The filaments developed by his research team are thin, flexible and lightweight copper ribbons. The ribbons have energy storing layers on one side and a solar cell on the other. Although they are more comfortable with advanced nanotechnology, Thomas and his team purchased a small tabletop loom and used it to weave the ribbons into a square of yarn.

In proof of concept demonstrations, the team showed that the filaments could be laced throughout jackets or other outwear to harvest and store energy to power personal health sensors, phones and other tech gadgets. This technology overcomes the main shortcoming of solar cells where the energy they produce must flow into the power grid or be stored in a battery, limiting their portability.

Thomas sees a major application with the military. Soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan have to walk in the sun and some of them carry more than 30 pounds of batteries on their bodies. It is also difficult for the military to deliver batteries to soldiers in this hostile environment. A garment made with the filaments can harvest and store energy simultaneously as long as sunlight is available.

Numerous other potential uses include electric cars that would be able to generate and store energy whenever they’re in the sun. Thomas notes that they have now demonstrated that it can be made and feels it is going to be extremely useful for both the general public and the military.