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Vodafone Rocks it Out with Wearable Energy Harvesters at UK Festival

Music fans at the ongoing Isle of Wight Festival (ongoing, to Sunday 16th) are taking part of an experiment, although not of a sonic nature. British cell phone company Vodafone is using the festival to try out the Power Pocket, a wearable gadget designed to power peripherals with body heat and movement. Now, that is some kind of amazing renewable energy!

The Power Pocket is built into Power shorts and the Recharge sleeping bag, which the company developed with the Electronics and Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton. Besides the Isle of Wight festival, the company will be taking its ingenious device to other festivals that take place during the summer season of music.

The research that led to the creation of this energy-harvesting device goes back to the late 1980s, to the days of printed smart material, which was designed to be used on ceramics, says Stephen Beeby, a professor of electronic systems at the University of Southampton. In the 1990s the energy harvesting concept was introduced and the researchers brought the two together to make smart materials for energy-generating purposes.

In 2003 they started to create printed thermoelectric material, which now can be made so small it can be stitched into a pair of shorts or a sleeping bag. “Basically, we’re printing down pairs of what are called ‘thermocouples’,” explains Professor Beeby. “You print lots of those down and connect them up to make a thermoelectric module. One side of that is cold and the other is hot, and when you get a flow of heat through it you can create a voltage and a current. Voltage and current together equals electrical power.”

It’s down to something called Seebeck effect, apparently. The principle is: the body provides the heat on the inside layer, and it’s the difference between that temperature and the colder one on the outside that provides the power.

The researchers will be trialing the Power Pockets and the Recharge sleeping bag through the festival season to see how it fares. Assuming the inside of the sleeping bag is 37C (human body temperature), they expect that eight hours in the sleeping bag could provide 24 minutes of talking time and 11 hours of standby time. A full day of walking and dancing in the Power Pocket shorts will be enough to charge a smartphone for four hours.

The researchers say the technology is not quite ready ready yet, nor would it solve the world’s energy crisis. But it seems to anticipate a future of ubiquitous energy harvesting. “There’s lots of research still needed around making this technology hardwearing,” says Beeby. “Sleeping bags, for example, need to be folded up and compressed into quite a small package.These materials at the moment are flexible, but there are improvements to be made still.

Article by Antonio Pasolini, a Brazilian writer and video art curator based in London, UK. He holds a BA in journalism and an MA in film and television.