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21st Century Textiles Make Life Better
21st Century Textiles Make Life Better
As we continue into Golden Age of the Fifth Techno-Economic Revolution, digital technology is poised to transform textiles in ways that were unimaginable.
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Since long before the invention of written language, textiles have played a major role in making our lives safe and comfortable. With each technology revolution textiles have become progressively more functional and affordable.

Now, as we continue into Golden Age of the Fifth Techno-Economic Revolution, digital technology is poised to transform textiles in ways that, until now, were unimaginable. Consider nine of the latest breakthroughs emerging from the world's research labs.

First, as recently described in Nature, researchers at MIT have discovered a scalable path for integrating semiconductor devices directly into fibers. As a result, they are anticipating the emergence of a 'Moore's law' analog in fibers. The MIT breakthrough is already allowing engineers to expand the fundamental capabilities of fabrics to encompass communications, lighting, physiological monitoring, and more. In the years ahead, fabrics will deliver value-added services and will no longer just be selected for aesthetics and comfort. MIT's initial application is the first fabric-based communication network.

Beyond communications, the fibers could potentially have significant applications in the biomedical field. For example, such fibers could be used to make a wristband that could measure pulse rates or blood oxygen levels or they could be woven into a bandage to continuously monitor the healing process. - In the prototype, the primary solid components were light emitting diodes and photo-sensing diodes. During manufacture both the devices and the tiny connective wires maintain their dimensions, while everything shrinks around them. The resulting fibers are then woven into fabrics. Then, in order to demonstrate their practicality as a possible material for clothing, the woven fabric was laundered 10 times and showed no degradation of performance.

Second, instead of serving as electronic communications channels, a French breakthrough involves clothing fibers designed to serve as artificial nerves. The journal Advanced Materials just reported on a team's success in developing a fast and simple way to make super-elastic, multi-material, high-performance fibers, which have already been integrated into robotic fingers as "artificial nerves." Whenever the fingers touch something, the fibers transmit information about the robot's tactile interaction with its environment. But that's not its only application. The research team also tested adding the fibers to large-mesh clothing to detect compression and stretching. They could also be used to develop a touch-keyboard that's integrated directly into clothing. And the researchers see many other potential applications.

As for commercialization, the textile industry has already expressed interest in adopting the "thermal drawing manufacturing technology" used to cost-effectively make the artificial nerve fibers. Patent applications have also been filed.

A third area of pioneering textile research is intended to pave the way towards nano-enhanced fabrics that can spontaneously clean themselves of stains and grime simply by being put under a light bulb or worn out in the sun. As the Australian researchers explained in Advanced Materials Interfaces, "There's more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this breakthrough lays a strong foundation for the future development of fully self-cleaning textiles." The team worked with copper and silver-based nanostructures, which are known for their ability to absorb visible light. When the nanostructures are exposed to light, they receive an energy boost that creates "hot electrons." These "hot electrons" release a burst of energy which enables the nanostructures to degrade organic matter.

The challenge for researchers has been to bring the concept out of the lab by working out ways to build these nanostructures on an industrial scale and permanently attach them to textiles. The chosen approach is to grow the nanostructures directly onto the textiles by dipping the fabric into a series of solutions, resulting in the development of stable nanostructures within 30 minutes. When exposed to light, during tests, it took less than six minutes for the nano-enhanced textiles to spontaneously clean themselves. The next step is to test the nano-enhanced textiles with organic compounds that could be more relevant to consumers, to determine how quickly whether they can handle common stains like tomato sauce or wine.

For a fourth and totally different textile technology application, researchers coated normal fabric with an electroactive material, which gives it the ability to contract in the same way as muscle fibers. Why is this important? Impressive advances have been made in the development of exoskeletons, which now enable people with disabilities to walk. But the existing technology involves rigid robotic suits, driven by motors or pressurized air. The Swedish researchers want to create exoskeletons that resemble "running tights," which someone could wear under their normal clothes.

Such a "device" could make it easier for older persons and those with impaired mobility to walk." The researchers have used mass-producible fabric and coated it with an electroactive material. A low-voltage applied to the fabric changes the volume of the electroactive material, causing the yarn to increase in length. The properties of the textile are controlled by its woven or knitted structure. Designers can exploit this principle in several different ways, depending on how the textile is to be used.

A fifth area of technology research involves clothes that generates electricity when the wearer is active. Swedish researchers have developed a textile consisting of piezoelectric yarn woven together with electrically conducting yarn. The piezoelectric yarn is made up of 24 fibers each as thin as a strand of hair, with each fiber having an electrically conducting core surrounded by an insulating piezoelectric polymer. During manufacture, the fabric is exposed to a strong electric field, which causes positive and negative charges in the polymer to be separated in an orderly manner. When the textile is then stretched or exposed to pressure, the deformation of the fibers causes a reorganization of the charge distribution, thus generating an electrical voltage. When the piezoelectric yarn is woven together with electrically conducting yarn, they form a closed circuit through which an electric current can flow. This research was recently documented in the journal Nature Flexible Materials.

A sixth technology turns textiles into photovoltaic solar cells. A recent issue of Nature Energy describes research on this technology at Japan's RIKEN Institute. The RIKEN scientists have developed a new type of ultra-thin photovoltaic material, coated on both sides with stretchable and waterproof films, which can continue to provide electricity from sunlight even after being soaked in water or being stretched and compressed. The flexible solar cell has an energy efficiency of 7.9 percent, producing 7.86 milliwatts per square centimeter, based on simulated sunlight of 100 milliwatts per square centimeter. The researchers believe these washable, lightweight, and stretchable organic-photovoltaics will open a new avenue for use as a long-term power source for wearable sensors and other devices.

The seventh area of textile innovation is perhaps the biggest opportunity: affordable, non-intrusive health monitoring sensors. This represents the natural intersection of textile engineering and the Internet of Things.

Consider four representative projects already emerging from the lab and heading for commercialization.
  1. Wearable devices are exploding in popularity, but most of the electronic sensors that detect and transmit data from wearables are made of hard, inflexible materials that can restrict both the wearer's natural movements and the accuracy of the data collected. Now, a team of engineers at the University of Delaware is developing next-generation smart textiles using flexible, carbon nanotube composite coatings on a wide range of fibers, including cotton, nylon and wool. Their discovery was recently reported in the journal ACS Sensors, where they demonstrated the ability to measure an exceptionally wide range of pressure - ranging from the light touch of a fingertip to the full force of being run over by a forklift. Fabric coated with this sensing technology could be used in future "smart garments," where the sensors are slipped into the soles of shoes or stitched into clothing to detecting human motion. One potential application of the sensor-coated fabric is to measure forces on people's feet as they walk. This data could help clinicians assess imbalances after injury or help to prevent injury in athletes.
  2. As recently documented in the journal Sensors, a team of Canadian researchers has created a smart T-shirt that monitors the wearer's respiratory rate in real time. This innovation paves the way for manufacturing clothing that could be used to diagnose respiratory illnesses or monitor people suffering from asthma, sleep apnea, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As the wearer breathes in, the smart fiber senses the increase in both thorax circumference and the volume of air in the lungs. These changes modify some of the resonant frequency of the antenna. The oscillations that occur with each breath are enough for the fiber to sense the user's respiratory rate. tests show that the data captured by the shirt is reliable, whether the user is lying down, sitting, standing, or moving around. The researchers put the T shirt through the wash and after 20 washes, the special resonant antenna was still in good working condition.
  3. Electronic textiles could allow a person to control household appliances or computers from a distance simply by touching a wristband or other item of clothing, which would be particularly helpful for those with limited mobility. E-textiles have been around for a while, but most existing versions have poor air permeability, can't be laundered or are too costly or complex to mass-produce. This new E-textile overcomes all of these limitations and is highly sensitive to human touch. The researchers made a self-powered triboelectric nanogenerator by depositing an electrode array of conductive carbon nanotubes on nylon fabric. To make the E-textile washable, they incorporated polyurethane. When swiped with a finger in different patterns, the E-textile generates electrical signals that can be coupled to computers to control programs, or to household objects to turn on lights, a fan or a microwave from across the room. The E-textile is breathable for human skin, washable and inexpensive to produce on a large scale. And,
  4. Miniaturized biosensors in textiles can now analyze body fluids, such as tiny drops of sweat, and provide a much better assessment of someone's health. European researchers refer to this system as BIOTEX. Several of the BIOTEX probes, including the pH sensor, use color changes or other optical measurements. For example, as perspiration passes through the pH sensor it causes an indicator to change colour which is detected by a portable spectrometer device. The immunosensor technology works in a similar fashion. Plastic optical fibres are woven into the fabric so that light can be supplied to the optical sensors and the reflected light directed to the spectrometer. In the first BIOTEX trials, the smart patches will be worn in clothes by people with obesity and diabetes, as well as athletes. Once the technology has been validated, the plan is to take on industrial backers to commercialize it.
The eighth new category of engineered textiles is intended to improve upon the time-tested temperature control functionality of textiles. Consider just two representative projects already emerging from the lab and heading for commercialization.
  1. According to a new paper in Applied Materials & Interfaces, skiers, crossing guards and others who endure frozen fingers in cold weather can look forward to future relief as manufacturers are poised to take advantage of a new technique for creating electrically heated cloth. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have made gloves that will keep your fingers as warm as the palms of your hands. Such lightweight, breathable and body-conformable electrical heaters have the potential to change traditional approaches to personal thermal management, medical heat therapy, joint pain relief and athletic rehabilitation. And,
  2. Stanford researchers have developed a reversible fabric that, without expending effort or energy, keeps skin a comfortable temperature whatever the weather. A paper published recently in Science Advances, describes a double-sided fabric based on the same material as everyday kitchen wrap. The fabric either warms or cools the wearer, depending on which side faces out. On one side, a copper coating traps heat between a polyethylene layer and the skin; on the other, a carbon coating releases heat under another layer of polyethylene. Worn with the copper layer facing out, the material traps heat and warms the skin on cool days. With the carbon layer facing out, it releases heat, keeping the wearer cool. Combined, the sandwiched material already increases a person's range of comfortable temperatures over 10 degrees F, and the potential range is much larger - close to 25 degrees F. With inhabitants wearing a textile like that, buildings in some climates might never need air conditioning or central heating at all.
The ninth category of engineered textiles includes those that proactively defend against disease organisms and dangerous chemicals. Consider just four representative projects already emerging from the lab and heading for commercialization. Doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals could soon be wearing uniforms brushed with tiny copper nanoparticles to reduce the spread of bacterial infections and viruses, at hospitals. As explained in the Journal of Nanomaterials, copper is the material of choice for researchers as it has very similar antibacterial properties to gold and silver, but is much cheaper. Prior to this breakthrough, techniques for binding copper to materials like cotton for medical and antimicrobial textile production had limitations.

Now, using a process called "Polymer Surface Grafting," the research team has tethered copper nanoparticles to cotton and polyester using a polymer brush, creating a strong chemical bond, which survives washing and reuse.Princeton researchers have developed a way to place onto surfaces special coatings that chemically 'communicate' with bacteria, telling them what to do. The coatings, which could be useful in inhibiting or promoting bacterial growth as needed, possess this controlling power over bacteria because, in effect, they 'speak' the bug's own language.

As explained in Nature Microbiology, bacteria respond to each other and to the environment via a mechanism called "quorum sensing." The researchers created a chemical coating that encourages desired activity from the bacteria. One can now imagine fabrics and others surfaces coated with quorum-sensing molecules or derivatives for use in medicine, industry or agriculture that are resistant to colonization by harmful bacteria or promote colonization by beneficial bacteria.

A groundbreaking smart textile developed by researchers at City College of New York has the ability to rapidly detect and neutralize nerve gas. Someday, chemically protective suits made of fabric coated with a self-healing, thin film may protect farmers from exposure to organophosphate pesticides, soldiers from chemical or biological attacks in the field and factory workers from accidental releases of toxic materials, according to a team of researchers at Penn State. How?

The one-micron thick coating turns ordinary fabric into the world's first self-healing textile. These nine areas of research are not meant to be exhaustive. In fact, they are simply illustrative of the many textile-related breakthroughs, which will help shape our lives, near term. And more discoveries are lurking, just over the horizon. Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration. First, textile-based technology will become an increasingly important nexus of innovation because of the ubiquity of textiles. Whether they are in clothing, upholstery or decor, fabrics and fibers are everywhere. And they are in close contact with the human body.

This means they are ideally positioned to connect micro- and nano-solutions to the macro world occupied by people. Second, some of the most important applications of smart textiles will merge stretchable electronics with fabrics. Consider some of the newest research at UC San Diego. Researchers built a proof-of-concept 3D stretchable electronic device, which they've dubbed a "smart bandage." A user can stick it on different parts of the body to wirelessly monitor different electrical signals. When worn on the chest or stomach, it records heart signals like an electrocardiogram (or ECG).

On the forehead, it records brain signals like a mini-EEG sensor, and when placed on the side of the head, it records eyeball movements. When worn on the forearm, it records muscle activity and can also be used to remotely control a robotic arm. The smart bandage also monitors respiration, skin temperature and body motion. At this point, the smart bandage can last for more than six months without any drop in performance, stretchability or flexibility. It can communicate wirelessly with a smartphone or laptop up to 10 meters away. And it could easily be powered by the piezoelectric jacket, mentioned earlier. And,

Third. the biggest value of the smart textiles now under development will be in catalyzing further innovation. As with so many innovations, today's smart textile are not what we like to refer to as "killer apps." However, once consumers have a chance to interact with these, expect to see a wave of improved solutions that will become mainstream "profit makers."

Great article on textile technology!
Henry Fortich
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