If you enjoy change, it’s always exciting when there’s the chance to re-write the rules. How we work, shop, meet people, communicate, play and even be entertained has all changed dramatically in recent years as a result of the internet and technology.
Where we can do these things has changed as well – just about anywhere.
However, one of the great limiters is energy and the opportunity to re-charge some of the fantastic devices we use.
There are some exciting developments such as the Upp is a personal energy device based on hydrogen fuel cell technology that gives instant energy anytime, anywhere to portable electronic devices such as smartphones and MP3 players via USB.
How good is it? Well, Apple has become the first retailer in the UK to sell it. Not a bad recommendation!
But the desire for ever more sources of lightweight and portable energy is inevitable.
One of the latest developments in portable energy has the potential to make its way into high fashion, or haute couture, in the form of wearable energy storage devices.
Researchers at Drexel University and Dalian University of Technology in China have chemically engineered a new, electrically conductive nanomaterial that is flexible enough to fold, but strong enough to support many times its own weight.
They believe it can be used to improve electrical energy storage, water filtration and radio frequency shielding in technology from portable electronics to coaxial cables.
Finding or making a thin material that is useful for holding and disbursing an electric charge and can be contorted into a variety of shapes, is a rarity in the field of materials science.
Tensile strength – the strength of the material when it is stretched – and compressive strength – its ability to support weight – are valuable characteristics for these materials because, at just a few atoms thick, their utility figures almost entirely on their physical versatility.
“Take the electrode of the small lithium-ion battery that powers your watch, for example, ideally the conductive material in that electrode would be very small – so you don’t have a bulky watch strapped to your wrist – and hold enough energy to run your watch for a long period of time,” said Michel Barsoum, PhD, distinguished professor in the college of engineering.
“But what if we wanted to make the watch’s wristband into the battery? Then we’d still want to use a conductive material that is very thin and can store energy, but it would also need to be flexible enough to bend around your wrist. As you can see, just by changing one physical property of the material – flexibility or tensile strength – we open a new world of possibilities.”
When you consider that Apple are about to launch their new watch, the relevance of flexible, conductive materials become apparent to what we wear and our items of clothing.
This flexible new material, which the group has identified as a conductive polymer nanocomposite – which forms part of family of composite two-dimensional materials called MXenes – is a collaboration between Yury Gogotsi, PhD, distinguished university and trustee chair professor in the College of Engineering at Drexel, and Jie Shan Qiu, vice dean for research of the school of chemical engineering at Dalian University of Technology in China.
Yury says: “The uniqueness of MXenes comes from the fact that their surface is full of functional groups, such as hydroxyl, leading to a tight bonding between the MXene flakes and polymer molecules, while preserving the metallic conductivity of nanometer-thin carbide layers. This leads to a nanocomposite with a unique combination of properties.”
Though just a few atoms thick, the MXene-polymer nanocomposite material shows exceptional strength – especially when rolled into a tube.
The researchers have also found hydrophilic properties of the nanocomposite, which means that it could have uses in water treatment systems, such as membrane for water purification or desalinization, because it remains stable in water without breaking up or dissolving.
In addition, because the material is extremely flexible, it can be rolled into a tube, which early tests have indicated only serves to increase its mechanical strength. These characteristics mark the trail heads of a variety of paths for research on this nanocomposite material for applications from flexible armor to aerospace components.
The concept of being able to generate your own energy, store and use energy on the move – integrated into everyday items such as clothes and watches – is a very attractive proposition. Dalian’s and Drexel’s work may have just moved us a step closer to achieving it. A great example of why chemical engineering matters.