Smart clothing often adds tech components to existing fabrics, but scientists and innovators are also working on electronic textiles – or e-textiles – where the fabric itself is the technology.
Dr Fatemeh Mokhtari is a research scientist at the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials and a research assistant at the Institute for Superconducting & Electronic Materials at the University of Wollongong. As part of her PhD project, she created a specific electronic fiber and used it to produce a fabric on a knitting machine. The fabric can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy, Mokhtari explains, which can then be used to power a device or function.
“What kind of mechanical energy? For example, when you walk, different parts of your body move – your shoulder, your knee will be bent, your elbow will be bent. It’s this kind of mechanical movement,” she says. “When you are running [wearing the fabric], this mechanical movement could be stored in a battery and used for charging your phone, watch, a bicycle light or any kind of personal electrical devices.” If tracking is the goal, she adds, it could be used to sense things like movement and body temperature.
There’s a way to go and it’s of course a complex endeavour, combining expertise from the worlds of material science, textiles, electronics and medicine. Challenges include experimenting with different materials to boost the power output as well as making sure fabrics are human-body-friendly. But the implications are huge. Imagine tracking fitness insights on a hike and then giving your phone some juice, all from your T-shirt.
Soldiers could charge their equipment through their movement, says Mokhtari, and healthcare patients could be monitored via their clothing.
Next-generation fabrics are also under the microscope in the northern hemisphere.
Yiyue Luo, a graduate student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is working on a textile that senses the wearer’s movement via their contact with the environment. Integrating their own fibers into the mix, her team has created prototypes including a vest, glove and sock. If somebody is wearing the latter for example, “we’re able to collect the real-time pressure imprints between [their] feet and the floor,” says Luo.
“Based on that, we’ll be able to… extract useful information. We know if the person is squatting, climbing or walking down the stairs, or something like that.” A garment could give feedback that helps an athlete or coach evaluate performance, she says.
It could support rehabilitation or detect whether someone has been sitting or lying down for a long time.
Textile innovation isn’t just of the electronics kind. Also in the US, Tufts University scientists have developed smart fabrics with bioactive inks that change color in response to chemicals released from the body, in sweat for example. This could signal fatigue, dehydration or even skin health. Meanwhile, mechanical engineers at Vanderbilt University have designed an ‘exosuit’ (it looks kind of like an abseil harness) to support workers’ backs in high-strain industries such as construction and healthcare.