Based on an idea from his ten year old daughter, nanotechnologist David Carroll of Wake Forest University has developed a flexible thermoelectric fabric he calls Power Felt that generates electricity from both heat and movement. There’s been other thermoelectric products made before, but they’ve usually been made out of ceramic material – heavy, brittle, and expensive. Power Felt is thin, lightweight, and feels just like wool felt – it’s even washable, as Carroll found out by accident. It’s cheap too – it costs about a quarter to make enough to cover a laptop.
Right now he’s envisioning using Power Felt to help extend the life of a battery. If it’s embedded in a laptop casing, then the heat that the laptop generates would be recycled back into the battery. Putting it on the back of a cellphone and letting your cellphone bounce around in your pocket (and absorb body heat) would put some juice back in the battery. But he’s also thinking about much bigger applications. For example, if Power Felt is cheap enough, it could be wrapped around your house, just like Tyvek insulation is now. All houses leak heat – with Power Felt you can use that heat loss to generate power. Making it part of a solar cell means that you generate electricity both from sunlight and the heat that the solar cell absorbs.
Carroll says that he hopes to make Power Felt commercially available by next year, and that they’re in the process of signing contracts with various companies to make it – he can’t name names, but he says that “the chances are extremely good that they make something that’s in your house right now.”
If you want to read more, Business Insider has a couple of articles on David Carroll’s Power Felt along with some short interviews.