As far as wearable technology goes, smart fabrics embody the concept like few others. However, as woven wires and sensors, the fashionable tech poses a major problem: they cannot be washed, until now…
With a long and rich history, smart fabrics made their way into wearables at the turn of the 19th century when electricity became more widespread. Engineers and designers started to experiment with the combination of electricity and clothing, and in 1884 the New York Times made mention of ballet girls wearing electric lights on their outfits powered by batteries concealed in special pockets. Back then it was more about fashion and novelty than practical uses.
It was the space race in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the invention of a way to integrate fiber optics into fabrics in the late ‘90s, and recent advances in nanotechnology that has brought the immense potential that these fabrics hold within our grasp, and thanks to organic electronics, the fabrics of the future will smell as promising as the potential they place.
Organic electronics is a specialized scientific field that looks specifically at organic molecules or polymers with regards to their electronic properties such as conductivity. Materials currently used in creating smart fabrics include a dirty half-dozen of complex materials. Among these are conductive fibres, treated conductive fibres, conductive fabrics, an array of conductive materials as sensors, conductive inks and planar fashionable circuit boards. All of these contain some sort of metal component to serve as a conductor for electronic signals, which can be destroyed by the water and friction from washing.
Recent research has shown that such conductive polymers, are not only biocompatible (meaning they’re not harmful to living tissue), but they can also be made biodegradable; and in experiments with a polymer known as PEDOT: PSS, can also withstand the strain a wash cycle puts on the fibers without losing much of its electronic properties.
This is great news for industries looking to incorporate electronic textiles. Already there are a number of potential uses, the most intriguing and promising of which lie in the medical and military realm. Features in the medical field could include the ability to monitor patients and administer treatments remotely, while the military could decrease a soldier’s load by integrating elements like GPS tracking, temperature control and fatigue monitoring into the fabric.