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Solar dress charges your MP3 player

Cornell University researchers have come up with a way to turn traditional cotton fibers into conductive material. Picture a T-shirt that monitors your breathing or a pillowcase that measures brain waves.

Solar dress
Abbey Liebman/Cornell University

Sashaying down the runway this weekend toward the future of wearable technology: a solar-powered dress that revs gadgets via a USB charger located in the waist.

Parts of the dress come from Cornell University's Textiles Nanotech Laboratory, which teamed up with two Italian universities to create cotton threads that can conduct electrical currents, yet remain light and comfortable enough to feel like the good old cotton we all know and love to sleep in.

Abbey Liebman solar dress
Tina C.

"Previous technologies have achieved conductivity, but the resulting fiber becomes rigid and heavy," said Juan Hinestroza, an assistant professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at the university whose student, Abbey Liebman, designed the solar frock. "More importantly our coatings are robust, hence making our yarns friendly to further processing such as weaving, sewing, and knitting."

For their conductive material, the researchers came up with a way to permanently coat traditional cotton fibers with a combination of semiconductor polymers and nanoparticles. The coating is less than 100 nanometers thick to preserve the cotton's flexibility (as a reference point, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers across). The researchers say simple knots in the treated thread can complete a circuit.

Liebman's light-pink solar dress--which will be featured at the annual Cornell Design League Fashion Show in Ithaca. N.Y., on Saturday--uses ultrathin flexible solar cells to power small electronics like phones and iPods. The model in the dress this weekend will strut the catwalk wearing burgundy silk jersey leggings and charging a BlackBerry.

The Cornell researchers envision additional applications for their cotton threads, including a pillowcase that monitors brain waves and a T-shirt that gauges heart rate and breathing, analyzes sweat, and even cools the wearer on a hot day.

Other scientists are working on first power-generating fabric, as well. An engineering team at Stanford University, for example, has already turned paper into power using ink infused with carbon nanotubes and is now attempting to apply the same principle to garments.

Of course, there are those nanotube-cancer concerns. But all in all, the idea of fashion that charges our gear (especially if it doesn't make us feel like we're wearing wires) seems smart--and tres geek-chic.

cotton thread
A small light is illuminated by electricity conducted through specially treated cotton thread tied to the connectors. Juan Hinestroza/Cornell University

Update, March 16 at 10:30 a.m. PDT: Added photo of the solar dress from fashion show.