Electronic Wool May Soon Find Its Way From Wearable Tech to Your Wardrobe

E-TEX Smart fabrics

Sensor laden smart shirts have been around for some time. Engineers are integrating circuitry into clothing to produce shirts to keep you cool, to LED-packed dresses. However, they aren’t becoming popular.

“The user needs to feel comfortable,” says Dr. Ana Neves, a researcher from the University of Exeter in the UK who specializes in wearable electronics. “Most smart textiles still rely on integrating conventional electronics onto fabrics, attaching them to the surface and removing them when the textile needs to be washed.”

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As part of the E-TEX project, Dr. Neves and her colleagues are using a different approach, by building devices directly into the fibers of textiles using flexible and lightweight components. For instance, it is possible to design a t-shirt to monitor the wearer’s heartbeat without the need for embedded electronics.

Dr. Neves got the idea of the project in 2014 when she developed a technique to make textile fibers conduct electricity by coating them with graphene.

The properties of graphene, a lightweight, bendable, stretchable semi-metal are ideal for use in textiles. It is also transparent, making it suitable for light-emitting displays.

“If we simply add a step or two, the chances of this type of technology being adopted will be significantly higher than if we tell a manufacturer that they need to completely reformulate their production lines,” said Dr. Neves.

E-TEX Smart fabrics
Researchers sandwiched doped zine sulphide between graphene in textiles to create glowing clothes. Credit: Dr Elias Torres Alonso, University of Exeter

The researchers sandwiched doped zinc sulphide between two layers of graphene, which act as conductors, and were able to make it glow.

In the future, the team hopes to produce energy from a person’s movements so that the fabrics can be self-powered. As flexible, plastic solar cells become more efficient, they could also be incorporated as a power source.

One of the big challenges is shielding the electronics so that they are washable and can resist moisture, as well as the mechanical stresses and strains due to physical activities.

“Electronic elements and connecting wiring can be encapsulated and protected by welding insulation tapes and/or embroidery techniques,” said Henry Yi Li, professor of textile science and engineering from the University of Manchester, UK, who believes ‘e-textiles have become one of the major focuses in wearable technology.

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So far, the E-TEX team has focused on developing uniform for firemen that integrates the needed functionality while fighting fire. For this, they need sensors that measure temperature and humidity, while a fireman’s location and movement must also be transmitted to other members of the team wirelessly.

The researchers have developed an algorithm that can determine whether a fireman is in danger or not by integrating data collected from different parts of the suit.

The project involves an international team, with members joining in from Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, France, England, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“The collaboration certainly helps us to move from lab work to developing commercial prototypes,” said Prof. Li.