If you had to explain your research topic to your grandmother or your little sister, how would you do it?
I make a fabric battery that stores energy – a supercapacitor. You have two plates, one is charged positive, one is charged negative. That creates attraction, and that attraction is a kind of energy. Now we put iron molecules between those plates – some are negative, some are positive. So which way do they go? They go for the opposite. The reason why we call them super capacitors is that the amount of energy that can be stored depends on how many irons can adsorb to the surface. So we use high surface area material: Activated carbon, graphene, nanotubes – just something where you can pack many irons on a small volume – then it becomes 'super'; it can store six times the magnitude of energy of a normal capacitor. And then I turn that into fabric.
Why do you turn this into fabric?
My initial dream was to make smart textiles. There are so many examples for beautiful smart textiles, but they all come with some clunky device as a battery pack. I was just looking at it and wondered: what is the point?
So my goal is to make a truly seamless, all fabric, and completely non-toxic, wearable energy storage device. That is why I started with capacitors, because they are much easier to make – and all solid, so there is no liquid leaking, while wearing it. And the geometry is very flexible, so you can adapt it to several forms.
I make yarn; each yarn is one half of the supercapacitor and then we knit them into different geometries so they're in parallel with each other. One yarn is one plate and the next yarn is the other plate.
You actually started as a designer, how did you come to chemistry?
My bachelor degree is actually in fashion design. I knew wanted to do fashion design, ever since I was six. But I also liked chemistry in school. Once I actually got into a fashion design programme, looking at Chanel, Valentino – all these beautiful gowns, all the more technical aspects of how to make a garment, how to make a product, really. I just kept looking at it thinking: So, this is it? Is there anything else? I was really missing something. I think of a really beautiful gown that transforms the person who is wearing it – I really wanted the clothes to do something, have some additional function. For example I designed some robe with clunky speakers, a “clap-on-dress” that would play music when you clap your hands. And then I began researching and found out that a) nobody would be able to wear any of these clothes and b) none of the materials we needed actually existed as textiles or yarns or even fibers for that matter. You can build any fabric, whatsoever. And that was when we decided to reach out into material science, looking for people that want to work on this with us.
You said in your research motivation that materials are the stuff that dreams are made of. Which is the one dream that you would like to become true?
Using materials and design materials is one thing, but I would like to find a unified manufacturing method so that you can make a battery material for a smart garment or make solar material for a smart garment and then be able to assemble it right away.
I think one of the most difficult things that scientists find is that they test a lot of small samples in the lab and then they have no idea how to scale it up. So I never work small: I always work large – we design yarns that we make into full fabrics right away. I think this is really important, because the yarn might work just fine, but if it can’t be processed through a machine and if it can’t undergo wear and tear – what is the point? On top of that, if it doesn’t store sufficient energy to actually power something - and unfortunately I see that most papers that come out say 'can’t yet' – then what was the whole purpose of making something new if it is not practical?
How would you draw the place where you have the best ideas?