Researchers developing wearable energy

Georgia Tech Regents' Professor Zhong Lin Wang holds a prototype microfiber nanogenerator.

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KAI RYSSDAL: It's the beauty of radio that we can wear what we want in the studio and nobody's the wiser. Slacks and a button down today, it's fine and all, but it's not really useful, you know? Today researchers announced what you could call a new "power shirt." It's still experimental, but one day it might do more than just look good.

Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: If James Bond were more eco-friendly, this is the shirt he would wear. It would let him turn all that running he does into electricity to power his fancy gadgets. The real life Q who designed this power shirt is Professor Zhong Lin Wang at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It wasn't international intrigue but routine exercise that led to the discovery. Wang says one question would nag him while he worked out.

ZHONG LIN WANG: How can I make this energy when I do exercises to be useful to some purposes?

The shirt is made with nanoscale wires of zinc oxide, way thinner than a human hair. When they rub against each other they create an electric charge.

WANG: So this is called energy harvesting from the environment.

The shirt could be worn by soldiers on the battlefield to power night goggles, or by hikers far from an electric outlet. Wang says the aerospace, biomedical and defense industries are interested in the experimental shirt, but the technology may be difficult to mass-produce. University of Chapel Hill Professor Joe DeSimone says nano-materials are fragile.

JOE DESIMONE: One of the biggest lynchpins in lots of nanotechnologies, is the ability to go from these single one-off devices, into something that's fabricate-able in a robust manner.

The shirt also needs to be safe. Andrew Maynard is with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. He says we have to make sure the materials in the shirt stay put.

ANDREW MAYNARD: Can they get out of that product into the environment? Can people breathe them in? Can people eat them? Can they pass through the skin?

One thing you can't do with the shirt, so far, is wash it. Zinc oxide is sensitive to moisture.

In Durham, North Carolina, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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