Washington: Today’s regular clothing has the unexplored power to become tomorrow’s wearable electronics, researchers say.
A Canadian lab has tested special fibres that can help make soft, flexible touch screens and batteries woven directly into the fabrics of modern life.
Turning rigid electronic parts into stretchy, smart clothing material has not proven easy. But early ideas have already hinted at practical uses beyond just wearing glowing “Tron” jumpsuits as fashion accessories.
People may swipe a finger across a car’s upholstery to turn down the heat or brush at their coat sleeves to adjust the volume of a connected music player - experiences that seamlessly blend “hard” gadget functions with “soft” objects.
“We don’t want humans to be aware of what they are wearing,” said Maksim Skorobogatiy, a physicist at Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal in Canada.
“It has to be self-contained piece that can charge itself, store energy and perform useful functions. Otherwise, it’s an extra burden that nobody needs in our lives.”
That philosophy has driven Skorobogatiy to assemble a diverse team of researchers focused on making the soft versions of electronic gadget parts, including multitouch screens, batteries and even microchip transistors.
Those technologies could lead to smart clothing that monitors a person’s health signs, or even acts as a wearable computer.
“The problem with most of the soft electronics ? the few examples that exist nowadays ? is that people mostly just put chips or widgets onto textiles and try to enable interesting textile functions,” Skorobogatiy told InnovationNewsDaily.
“Most of the electronics are not designed for soft interfaces,” he said.
Some labs have tried embedding tiny nanoparticles inside ordinary cotton thread so that they can conduct electricity. But they must wrestle with problems in making the material last a long time, as well as needing to use chemicals to bind the nanoparticles to the cotton.
By contrast, Skorobogatiy’s lab turned to the manufacturing process used to create the optical fibres that carry TV and Internet signals. The technique allowed the Canadian team to make new polymer-based fibres based on melting the preformed material to pull out a long, thin fibre shape. Such fibres can conduct electric signals.
The researchers wove the fibres into an experimental touchpad that showed off partial multitouch capability similar to what smartphones or tablets possess.
Next, they made flat sheets of batteries by combining typical lithium battery materials with thermoplastic binder material. Skorobogatiy’s lab cut the battery sheets into thin strips and wove the strips into typical clothing textiles.
The technology of smart clothing may seem imminent, but psychological barriers remain because textile manufacturers are hesitant to work with completely new fibres. The Canadian researchers have begun working on toppling such barriers by providing fibres for designers to try out.
The work has been published in the journal Smart Materials and Structures and journal of the Electrochemical Society.