Researchers have developed next-generation smart textiles

Affordable smart fabrics woven on textile-industry looms

Image credit: Sanghyo Lee

A team at the University of Cambridge has developed a fabric that could incorporate LEDs, sensors, energy harvesting, and storage capabilities into clothing.

The researchers have demonstrated a method to produce next-generation smart textiles inexpensively and without having to change the technology currently used for textile manufacturing. 

The team achieved this by weaving electronic, optoelectronic, sensing and energy fibre components on the same industrial looms used to make conventional textiles. The result was patches of smart fabric, made cheaply and sustainably. 

The Cambridge researchers had already demonstrated the ability to make these woven displays with specialised manual laboratory equipment, and other researchers have manufactured smart textiles in microelectronic fabrication facilities.

“We could make these textiles in specialised microelectronics facilities, but these require billions of pounds of investment,” said Dr Sanghyo Lee, a leader of the research. “In addition, manufacturing smart textiles in this way is highly limited, since everything has to be made on the same rigid wafers used to make integrated circuits, so the maximum size we can get is about 30 centimetres in diameter.”

Instead, the team's recent study was focused on developing more affordable manufacturing methods, which could allow smart textiles to become an alternative to larger electronics in sectors including automotive, electronics, fashion and construction.

The researchers' paper showed that smart textiles can be made using automated processes, with no limits on their size or shape. Thanks to this technique, the team mixed conventional fibres with energy storage devices, light-emitting diodes, and transistors to build smart textiles by automated weaving.

The fibre devices were interconnected by an automated laser welding method with electrically conductive adhesive. The process was also optimised to minimise damage to the electronic components, which in turn made the smart textiles durable enough to withstand the stretching of an industrial weaving machine.

“The flexibility of these textiles is absolutely amazing,” said Dr Luigi Occhipinti, who co-led the research. “Not just in terms of their mechanical flexibility, but the flexibility of the approach, and to deploy sustainable and eco-friendly electronics manufacturing platforms that contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions and enable real applications of smart textiles in buildings, car interiors and clothing. Our approach is quite unique in that way.”

The research team, working in partnership with textile manufacturers, were able to produce test patches of smart textiles of roughly 50x50 centimetres, although this can be scaled up to larger dimensions and produced in large volumes.

“These companies have well-established manufacturing lines with high-throughput fibre extruders and large weaving machines that can weave a metre square of textiles automatically,” said Lee. “So when we introduce the smart fibres to the process, the result is basically an electronic system that is manufactured exactly the same way other textiles are manufactured.”

The researchers say it could be possible for large, flexible displays and monitors to be made on industrial looms, rather than in specialised electronics manufacturing facilities, which would make them far cheaper to produce. 

The team's findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

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