New Fibers Mimic Electric Eels #WearableWednesday


Those electric eels you’ve seen on NatGeo have been an inspiration for scientists at Fudan University in Shanghai according to LiveScience. They’ve developed fibers that mimic the electrocytes in eels, but producing higher voltages.  Eels use their electrocytes in concert, while the new fibers use a series of capacitors. Here’s a description.

The scientists fabricated the capacitors by first wrapping sheets of carbon nanotubes around elastic rubber fibers 500 microns wide, or about five times the average width of a human hair. Carbon nanotubes are pipes only nanometers, or billionths of a meter, in diameter that possess remarkable electrical and mechanical properties.

The researchers made sure that the electrically conductive carbon nanotube sheets did not completely cover the electrically insulating rubber. Instead, there were gaps where the insulating rubber was exposed. Such gaps are key, because capacitors consist of both conductive and insulating units.

Then, the scientists applied patches of electrically conductive electrolyte gel onto these fibers. The pattern of patches the researchers used converted the fibers into capacitors.

I decided to look further into the team’s white paper on Journal for Advanced Materials to find more benefits of this fiber structure besides the obvious small size and power generation. It’s going to be a win-win for wearables as the fiber’s shape makes it flexible, stretchable and weave-able. Their electrochemical capacitor can also be combined with solar cells for some energy harvesting or energy storing. The paper also boasted that “a fiber about 39 feet (12 meters) long could generate 1,000 volts”. They’ve already been tested in wearables, according to Hao Sun, lead author of the study.

In experiments, they created energy wristbands to power electronic watches, and wove fibers into T-shirts to power 57 light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In the future, these energy fibers “might be incorporated into our daily clothes to power our wearable devices, such as the Apple Watch and Google Glass”, Sun said.

For those watching trends in wearables, I would definitely put electrochemistry in the mix. This is going to have a big impact on manufacturing and the capability of textiles, bands and other wearables. Also, if you need a better understanding of capacitors, just check out our Circuit Playground guide on the topic. Circuit Playground is a special series by Adafruit including guides and videos explaining all of those electronic terms you haven’t had the guts to ask about. Besides, it’s okay if you don’t know them, because like a Jedi master, you will be learning for life anyway.  Did I mention there is a cool app, too? Do it!

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