By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 14, 2008

Ah, the promise of piezoelectric fiber pairs.

“Remarkable New Clothing May Someday Power Your iPod®,” reads the headline of today’s National Science Foundation press release, complete with the dutiful ® symbol that nobody outside Apple (AAPL) ever bothers to use.

The release describes nanotech clothing being designed at the Georgia Institute of Technology that converts the wearer’s motion into electricity that can be used to power small electrical devices.

A report in the Feb. 14 issue of Nature explains how pairs of textile fibers covered with zinc oxide nanowires generate electricity in response to applied mechanical stress.

“The two fibers scrub together just like two bottle brushes with their bristles touching, and the piezoelectric-semiconductor process converts the mechanical motion into electrical energy,” says Georgia Tech professor Zhong Lin Wang.

Wang and his collaborators have made more than 200 fiber nanogenerators so far and have measured as much as 4 nanoamperes and output voltage of about 4 millivolts from two 1-cm fibers. Wang estimates that a square meter of this fabric could generate as much as 80 milliwatts.

The one wrinkle in the technology (NSF’s pun, not mine) is that zinc oxide is sensitive to moisture. You wouldn’t throw your iPod in the washing machine, and your nanopants shouldn’t go in there either.

The research was funded by NSF’s Division of Materials Research and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Emory-Georgia Tech Nanotechnology Center for Personalized and Predictive Oncology, of all people.

For more information, see the NSF release here.

The scanning electron microscope image is reposted courtesy of Z.L. Wang and X.D. Wang, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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