Smart textiles, where electronics are incorporated into fabrics, have been around for some time, from sensor-laden shirts that keep you cool, to dresses packed with LEDs. Despite these innovations, even the most determined shopper would struggle to find this type of fashion on the high street.
Dr Ana Neves, a researcher from the University of Exeter in the UK who specialises in wearable electronics, thinks bulky design is partly to blame.
‘The user needs to feel comfortable,’ she said. ‘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.’
As part of the E-TEX project, Dr Neves and her colleagues are using a different strategy, by building devices directly into the fibres of textiles using flexible and lightweight components. A t-shirt, for example, could be designed to monitor the wearer’s heartbeat without the need for embedded electronics.
The idea for the project came about in 2014 when Dr Neves developed a technique to make textile fibres conduct electricity by coating them with graphene. She then decided to apply the method to incorporate electronics into clothing.
The properties of graphene are ideal for use in textiles. The semi-metal is just a few atoms thick, making it extremely lightweight, and it can be bent and even stretched while remaining robust. It is also transparent, which makes it suitable for light-emitting displays.
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