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Can a T-shirt turn sound into electricity?

Those snazzy shirts are one of telecom firm Orange's efforts to build eco-friendly phone chargers. The white rectangles on the shirts are the piezoelectric films.
Image courtesy Orange

The short answer is of course a T-shirt can turn sound into electricity. In fact, such a shirt makes a great DIY project. To begin, you'll need a sewing kit, some Velcro, a yard or two of Berber carpet and a few ounces of catnip. After that, it's simply a matter of adding the cats and standing ready with a bolt of wool cloth, some amber rods and a few dry cell batteries.

If feline fashion raises your hackles, you could opt instead for the Sound Charge T-shirt. Ginned up by European telecom firm Orange, its fashion sense might fall well short of a living cat shirt's je ne sais quoi, but it is easier to pack -- which is good, since running the airport security gauntlet in a shirt wired up with a built-in sound-to-current converter, battery and cell phone power dock strikes us as unwise.

T-shirts are a favored platform these days for novelty microelectronics. The pages of ThinkGeek teem with examples of techno-tees that light up with LEDs, sport sound-effect-spitting speakers or let you draw, play guitar or display WiFi connectivity [source: ThinkGeek].

Speaking of speakers, Orange's fancy fabric employs the same piezoelectric film found in audio electronics, but it works in the opposite direction: Whereas speakers pump electricity into piezoelectric materials to produce sound vibrations, the Sound Charge T-shirt converts incoming sound pressure into voltage. Internal wiring then pipes the juice to a reservoir battery that is aimed at fueling several different phone models [sources: Orange; Srivastava].

The tympanic tee is only the latest zesty idea plucked from Orange's concentrated efforts to build a more eco-friendly -- and headline-grabbing – crop of phone chargers. For four years, the company has partnered fruitfully with renewable energy enterprises such as Gotwind to trot out a new green gadget annually at the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts in Somerset, England [sources: Boyle; Orange; Telegraph].

In 2010, the festival served as test bed for Orange's Power Wellies -- Wellington-style rubber boots packed with a heel-mounted, heat-powered cell charger [sources: Boyle; Orange; Telegraph]. The wind-and-solar-powered Recharge Pod debuted at Glastonbury 2007, and the boogie-boosted Dance Charger was trotted out in 2008 [sources: Boyle; Gotwind; Orange].

Orange estimated that 80 decibels of sound would rock its shirts at Glastonbury, a level of noise akin to the din of a busy street. That much guitar squeal and drone amounts to about six watt-hours of juice -- enough to charge two cell phones or one smartphone -- but, like making fresh-squeezed orange juice, it will take some patience. Accumulating a full charge will take between 12 hours and a full weekend of ear-bleeding.

We suggest texting rather than talking, at least until your hearing recovers [sources: Orange; Telegraph]. On the other hand, you could try your luck with any of the growing collection of novelty chargers on the market, particularly since, as of June 2012, none of Orange's gizmos are for sale.