Washable smart clothes powered by Wi-Fi could help monitor health
Image credit: Purdue University/Rebecca McElhoe
Engineers at Purdue University in Indiana have developed a method to transform existing clothing items into battery-free wearables resistant to laundry. These smart clothes are powered wirelessly through a flexible, silk-based coil sewn on the textile.
Experts believe that clothes of the future will become smart. These smart clothes will outperform conventional passive garments, as they will feature miniaturised electronic circuits and sensors that will allow wearers to communicate with their phone, computer, car, and other machines.
This smart clothing will not only make wearers more productive but also check on their health status and even call for help if they suffer an accident, experts have said. But the fabrication of smart clothing has been a challenge to achieve because we need to periodically wash our clothes and the water doesn’t interact well with electronics.
To challenge this, the Purdue engineers have developed a new spray/sewing method to transform any conventional cloth items into battery-free wearables that can be cleaned in the washing machine.
“By spray-coating smart clothes with highly hydrophobic molecules, we can render them repellent to water, oil and mud,” said Ramses Martinez, an assistant professor in Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering. “These smart clothes are almost impossible to stain and can be used underwater and washed in conventional washing machines without damaging the electronic components sewn on their surface.”
According to Martinez, the rigidity of typical waterproof garments and their reduced breathability make them feel uncomfortable after being worn for a few hours. But “thanks to their ultra-thin coating, our smart clothes remain as flexible, stretchable and breathable as conventional cotton T-shirts,” he said.
Unlike common wearables, the Purdue smart clothes do not require batteries for powering. By simply harvesting energy from Wi-Fi or radio waves in the environment, the clothes can power the circuitry sewn on the textile.
One example is a battery-free glove that illuminates its fingertips every time the user is near a live cable to warn about the possibility of an electric shock. Another is a miniaturised cardiac monitoring system sewn on a washable sweatband capable of monitoring the health status of the wearer.
“Such wearable devices, powered by ubiquitous Wi-Fi signals, will make us not only think of clothing as just a garment that keeps us warm but also as wearable tools designed to help us in our daily life, monitor our health, and protect us from accidents,” Martinez said.
He added: “I envision smart clothes will transmit information about the posture and motion of the wearer to mobile apps, allowing machines to understand human intent without the need of other interfaces, expanding the way we communicate, interact with devices, and play video games.”
The researchers said experts can fabricate this technology in conventional, large-scale sewing facilities, which are expected to speed up the development and commercialisation of future smart clothes.
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