On Campus

Phone-charging clothes get chunk of $43 million

NSERC funding announced at UBC

VANCOUVER – It’s research that gives new meaning to the term power suit: clothing that charges cellphones or monitors the wearer’s heart rate or blood pressure.

The development of so-called e-textiles is among 10 research projects at the University of British Columbia that have received $8.5 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, announced Thursday by Greg Rickford, the federal minister of state for science and technology.

Electrical and computer engineering associate professor Peyman Servati, who is leading the research, said wearable electronics such as Google Glass are becoming increasingly popular as people become more and more reliant on “smart” gadgets.

Fabrics that can generate clean energy are still in the early stages of development. But Servati expects there will be a high demand and he believes smart clothing could be hitting the stores within five to 10 years.

“You have a solar panel that you only put on your roof, right? But you can easily integrate (the technology) into fabric … and wear it, and charge your phone or warm things,” he said in an interview.

“If you integrate it to form a tent in a remote area, you can make electricity using sunlight instead of having problems with accessibility.”

At UBC’s Flexible Electronics and Energy Lab, a mannequin wearing a thin piece of white fabric was flanked by a poster board showing various charts and photos of hand and spinal movements. Small chips were laid out on counters, and a rectangular glass box with long, black, rubber-like gloves sticking out stood along one wall.

Servati said creating clothing that can generate solar energy involves integrating thin films of electronics into materials called nanofibres to absorb sunlight. He and his team are also figuring out how the fabric can store the energy, perhaps by incorporating a battery.

The challenge is to maintain the electronics’ performance while ensuring the garment is as stretchable and comfortable as everyday clothing, he said.

Wearable technology has created a buzz at this week’s annual international Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with manufacturers showing off smart watches, jewelry and wrist bands.

But easy, cheap access to electricity is not the only thing Servati’s team is working on. They are also developing clothing that can monitor and transmit people’s vital signs — an innovation that can benefit people with high-risk health conditions, Servati said.

“You cannot tie them to big medical equipment, but you can have something comfortable integrated into their clothing that could send the signals and monitor, for example, Parkinson’s or tremors for the patients,” he said.

UBC is among 23 Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto and McGill University, that received a total of 77 grants from NSERC worth $43 million. The research projects cover areas like 3D technology, fish ecology, and oil spills.

Rickford, who toured the UBC lab with an NSERC official, the university’s president, and fellow Conservative MP Wai Young, said innovation will strengthen Canada’s economic growth and create jobs.

“Science can power commerce, commerce can power science,” he said.

—Vivian Luk

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.