As portable electronics have become intricately woven with the fabric of our lives, we've debated just what sort of role they should play in the outdoors. Sure, a GPS unit can save lives, but do you really need to Instagram Half Dome? Do other hikers want to hear your playlist echo through the Dolomites? In our 2014 travel awards, we suggested going dark to improve your trip, but new technology will make it easier than ever to weave electronics into the fabric of your life—literally.
It might sound like science fiction, but advantages in fabric technology may soon allow us to weave flexible supercapacitors—the battery's kissing cousins—into clothes. Before long, your base layer could power a defibrillator, GPS, or, yes, your iPhone.
The device, developed by scientists in three countries, harnesses the potential of graphene, a supermaterial that's a million times thinner than paper and 100 times stronger than steel. Combined with carbon nanotubes in a tightly connected network, the supercapacitor can store energy comparable to lithium batteries, an area where supercapacitors have historically fallen short.
Why supercapacitors? Despite holding less energy than batteries, supercapacitors can often be fully charged in a couple minutes and retain much of their energy even after many idle months. Modern laptops, smartphones, and other devices use the technology for power supply stabilization, but large energy reserves would revolutionize how they're used.
Being able to weave supercapacitors into clothes would also be pretty nifty. Reporting their findings in Nature Nanotechnology, the scientists behind the research explain that they've developed methods to continuously produce large amounts of the flexible fiber, which means that incorporating the technology might come sooner than later. Specific uses the authors suggest include powering medical devices at home or communications devices for soldiers. These new flexible, strong supercapacitors could also help reduce the space required by all types of devices that need large power reserves.
A "smart textile" incorporating these fibers wouldn't be a slouch, either. While many rechargeable batteries can be charged only about 1,000 times before experiencing significant decline, these flexible nanofibers can be recharged 10 times more than that.
While you shouldn't toss out your map and compass just yet, next time you're in the mountains and your phone dies, remember that a solution may soon be coming to the shelves of a retailer near you.