Will clothes of the future generate electricity? Can you still charge your phone? Professor Fudan takes you from science fiction to reality

【Editor’s Note】
May 27, 2023 is the 118th anniversary of Fudan University. “The celebration of various activities is centered on the promotion of scientific research.” Since 1954, on the eve of the school anniversary, then president Chen Wangdao put forward this idea, holding scientific reports during the school celebration has become one of the important academic traditions in Fudan.
Continuing the academic tradition, the string song is endless. From May 9th, more than 50 famous teachers from various disciplines of culture, social science, engineering and medicine will give academic speeches one after another.
The fifth session of the “2023 Xianghui University Anniversary Series Academic Report” was opened by Peng Huisheng, head of the Department of Polymer Science of Fudan University, with the theme of “Future Clothes Can Generate Power – Exploration and Thinking of Polymer Fiber Devices”.

Professor Peng Huisheng. Pictures of this article by Zhang Huaiyi and Zhang Qinwen

More than 5,000 years ago, human beings began to use polymer fiber materials as fabrics, 5,000 years later, the function of fibers still stays in the cold and warmth, comfortable and beautiful, in the information society, can we give fiber materials more functions?
From polymer fiber materials to polymer fiber devices, Peng Huisheng introduced the team’s exploration of fiber solar cells, fiber lithium-ion batteries, fabric display devices and other technologies. Fabrics can glow, change color, and even help understand the mechanism of disease, from the principle of the device to the application, Peng Huisheng leads the audience from science fiction to reality.
A vision, plunge into polymer fiber research
Electronic devices are the source of the development of modern information society, how to make it small enough and thin enough? With problems, 15 years ago, Peng Huisheng got into the research field of polymer fiber devices.
To obtain a fiber device, you must first obtain the fiber material. Materials composed of metal atoms with unique electrical, optical and electrochemical properties. To this end, the team developed a metal backbone polymer, breaking the previously unreported situation of all polymers with metal atoms as the main chain, and laying a material foundation for the subsequent team to build fiber electrode materials. Further, at the composite material level, the team found that polymer/oriented carbon nanotube composite fibers were prepared by dry spinning, and found that polyimide polymers could reversibly and effectively store lithium to obtain a novel electrochemically active material system.
Through 15 years of hard work, the team has also established a database of polymer gel electrolytes, which can be selected according to different types of fiber devices.

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“Weaving” a futuristic garment
So, how will the clothes of the future generate electricity? It relies on fiber solar cells.
The field of fiber devices faces three major problems: how to solve the uneven distribution of electric field between two fiber electrodes, how to quickly and effectively transmit fiber devices with long charge edges, and how to achieve stable interaction between active materials and conductive fibers with high curvature.
To solve the above problems, the team prepared fiber electrodes with multi-scale orientation structures, and then constructed fiber devices by in-situ polymerization. The excellent reversible deformation properties and unique enveloping confinement effect are imparted by the oriented nano and micro structures, ensuring efficient charge transport at the active material/conductive substrate interface.
The team also found that the radial structure of the nanotubes on the surface of the fiber working electrode effectively ensures the effective penetration of dye molecules, achieves a higher contact area, and is conducive to efficient separation and transmission of charges. By designing the polymer electrolyte, the team further solved the safety problem of fiber solar cells.
So far, the efficiency of this fiber solar cell can reach 12% outdoors and 25% indoors, which can improve the efficiency of indoor light energy. In addition, the unique one-dimensional structure of fiber solar cells ensures that their photoelectric conversion efficiency does not depend on the angle of incident light. This means that even if the clothes are constantly deformed, they can still provide a stable power supply to the electronics during exercise. “The solar cell fabric built now can generate electricity every day to fully charge 36 mobile phones.”
Further build fiber lithium-ion batteries, effectively store the electricity generated by fiber solar cells, and more effectively meet the needs of daily life. For these new fiber batteries, when immersed, twisted, and punctured, the fabric can still effectively charge electronic products, Peng Huisheng showed everyone the team’s test experiment, which caused the audience to marvel. As for comfort, “even in the hottest summer in Shanghai, the battery temperature rises by two or three degrees, which is an acceptable range for the human body.”
In addition to generating electricity, continuous fibers are “pulled” through a spinnable array of carbon nanotubes, and then the monomers are reacted to carbon nanotubes through chemical reactions, topological chemical polymerization occurs under ultraviolet light, and the color can be quickly changed after power. On this basis, the introduction of light-emitting conductive polymer system can also realize luminescent fibers.
“At present, basically red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple can do everything.” Making a blanket of blue-emitting fibers and wrapping it around a baby can treat neonatal jaundice without separating the baby from the mother.
High flexibility and biosecurity, the fiber device is implanted into the tumor site by injection method, in situ monitoring and even treatment, and the human glucose concentration can be detected in real time, “you can hardly feel its presence, it doesn’t matter if you take a bath, we propose a slogan: bring the hospital home.” At present, the safety and long-term performance of this fiber device have been experimentally verified, “entering the body, it can achieve effective detection of human physiological indicators for several months.” ”
“Knit” clothes with monitors
In Peng Huisheng’s view, to integrate and apply fiber devices, there is still a lack of an important tool – displays. How to build a programmable array of light-emitting dots on soft fibers with a diameter of only tens to hundreds of microns was a major challenge that plagued the team and even the entire field.
The team’s starting point was to fiberize all the electronic components to create a “fabric system” that would achieve all the required functions from a single piece of soft fabric.
What to do if the deaf and mute cannot speak, you can collect the brain wave signal and display it on your clothes to achieve real-time communication with others. The controllable display switch at any time can protect personal privacy, thereby improving the quality of life of the deaf and dumb. Cycling can’t look at the phone, the navigation system can be woven into the sleeve, “At some point, maybe the phone will disappear or change shape.” ”
In Peng Huisheng’s view, fiber electronic devices have shown great application prospects in a wide range of fields such as wearable devices, new energy, artificial intelligence, big health, and space exploration.
Of course, to achieve the large-scale application of devices, there are still many challenges, in the future, there is an urgent need for fiber device synthesis of functional materials, fiber devices efficient integration methods are currently almost non-existent, these problems are imminent, but also Peng Huisheng and the team to “enter” the direction.
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