If you had a heart condition, or diabetes, getting on-the-spot data about your condition from the clothing you wear could revolutionize your treatment.
People who live with conditions ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer’s rely on medical devices that monitor symptoms, perform diagnoses, and even provide treatment. Some, like insulin pumps, are worn on the body. The trouble is that many of these devices are bulky or inconvenient.
But researchers specializing in nanotechnology are developing ways to build materials and machines that can be worn comfortably by patients either inside or outside the skin.
A conversation with his ten-year-old daughter inspired nanotechnologist David Carroll of Wake Forest University to find a material that could charge a phone or laptop by converting heat into electricity. What he ended up inventing does that and much more.
This thin material — which he calls “power felt” — can convert both heat and movement into electricity. Besides charging your phone, or capturing the heat lost through your car’s tailpipe, this revolutionary fabric might change the way we practice medicine as well.
Unlike the thermoelectric materials currently available, Carroll’s fabric is lightweight, feels like wool felt, and can be wrapped around surfaces or even sewn into clothing. That is because it is made from sheets of carbon nanotubes instead of the ceramics materials usually used to make thermoelectrics.
With a manufacturing cost of somewhere around 25 cents for a couple of square feet, the stuff if incredibly cheap to make.
Carroll says that a lot can be known about a person’s physiology just through carefully measuring changes in body temperature and respiration. This information can say a lot about symptoms a person might be experiencing or an injury someone might have.
For example, infected areas are often hotter than normal.
And, because it collects power from the heat of the body, it eliminates the need for batteries, which add weight to the sensors and can cause discomfort.
Here’s a lightly edited version of what David Carroll told us about the medical applications of power felt.
Busines Insider: This power felt is amazing. Besides charging your cellphone, collecting heat from the sun solar, or making energy out of the heat lost from appliances and homes, what other applications does it have?
David Carroll: We have some really interesting applications for high-performance clothing. We expect that to be in testing for next year. And that high-performance clothing will do things like not only will it be useful for you to collect to power, I think the bigger story here is that we are also going to be using it for health monitoring.
Business Insider: Can you explain what you mean when you say, “high-performance clothing”?
David Carroll: So it collects power, but it also manages to collect information that lets us know an elderly person’s risk of falling. Or if you are an Alzheimer’s patient, it helps to monitor certain bodily functions, let us know the respiration of your skin, let us know things like sugar levels and things like that.
All of those functionalities need power associated with them, and most of those cases, for Alzheimer’s patients, for people who are really elderly, for children that are handicapped, you can’t really include battery supplies for stuff like that.
So you have to be able to power it from the body itself. So we suspect we will not only be able to integrate power function but on the spot diagnosis with power felt.
BI: With the power felt itself or in conjunction with other devices?
DC: With the power felt itself. The felt is measuring temperature locally. It’s creating power from that temperature, but it is also measuring it. If you measure temperature locally and you do it the right way, you can know an awful lot about a person and their physiology.