A way to produce sustainable and affordable “smart” fabrics of any size that react and adapt to our environments has been developed.
A team of international researchers weaved electronic, optoelectronic, sensing and energy fiber components together to create smart fabrics that can sense and respond to their external environment.
The study team, led by the University of Cambridge, engineered a way to develop the materials using current looming methods of producing clothes – making it vastly cheaper to produce the smart fabrics.
The study’s authors say their research demonstrates how smart textiles could be used as cheaper alternatives in the automotive, electronics, fashion and construction industries.
Despite recent developments in smart textiles their functionality, dimensions and shapes have until now been heavily limited due to expensive manufacturing processes which require “billions of pounds” of investment.
The international research team had previously demonstrated that large woven displays could be made using specialized manual laboratory equipment.
Other smart textiles can also be manufactured in microelectronic fabrication facilities, but these are highly expensive and produce large amounts of waste.
However, the study team found that flexible displays and smart fabrics can be produced at a far reduced cost by weaving electronic, optoelectronic (the detection and control of light), sensing and energy fiber components on the same industrial looms currently used to make conventional textiles.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that if the fibers used in smart textiles were coated with materials that could withstand stretching they could be used in conventional manufacturing techniques.
Applying this theory, the team first produced a 46-inch woven demonstrator display and, in doing so, proved that smart textiles can be made using automated processes – with no limits on the size or shape of the fabric.
Multiple types of fiber devices, including energy storage devices, light-emitting diodes, and transistors, were fabricated and mixed with conventional fibers – either synthetic or natural – to build smart textiles by automated weaving.
These fiber devices were interconnected by an automated laser welding method with “electrically conductive adhesive.”
These processes were all optimized to minimize damage to electronic components, which in turn made the smart textiles durable enough to withstand the stretching of an industrial weaving machine.
Dr. Sanghyo Lee, the study’s first author, explained how beneficial the team’s findings could be in producing the smart fabrics of the future.
“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 centimeters in diameter.”
Co-author Dr. Luigi Occhipinti, also from the Department of Engineering, added: “Smart textiles have also been limited by their lack of practicality.
“You think of the sort of bending, stretching and folding that normal fabrics have to withstand, and it’s been a challenge to incorporate that same durability into smart textiles.”
The research team worked in partnership with textile manufacturers and was able to produce test patches of smart textiles at a size of around 50cm by 50cm, although they say this could be scaled up both to larger dimensions and produced in greater volumes.
“These companies have well-established manufacturing lines with high throughput fibre extruders and large weaving machines that can weave a meter square of textiles automatically,” Lee continued.
“So when we introduce the smart fibers to the process, the result is basically an electronic system that is manufactured exactly the same way other textiles are manufactured.”
The researchers concluded that though future optimization of their methods was needed, they had shown how it could be possible for large, flexible displays and monitors to be made on industrial looms rather than in specialized electronics manufacturing facilities – making them far cheaper to produce.
Occhipinti added: “The flexibility of these textiles is absolutely amazing, 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 was supported in part by the European Union and UK Research and Innovation.