In the not-too-distant future, our shirts, shorts and shoes will all be “smart,” embedded with subtle circuitry that might collect sunlight to power our smartphones or continuously monitor our vital signs like a full-body Fitbit. Researchers recently brought this wearable electronics future one step closer to reality with the creation of a stretchable, washable, non-metal coating that transforms any piece of clothing into a robust electrical conductor.
One of the biggest obstacles in wearable electronics is making smart clothing that people actually want to wear. That means cotton T-shirts that feel like cotton T-shirts — soft, lightweight and bendable, instead of stiff, heavy and threaded with metal wires.
A team of scientists and engineers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst may have solved the wearability problem by inventing an impossibly thin conductive coating that can be applied at room temperature to any textile or material — cotton, wool, silk, polyester, leather, or plastic — without altering the look and feel of the garment.
Coated with this conductive polymer, which measures only 500 nanometers thick (one-tenth the thickness of a human hair), the fabrics can now act as their own simple circuits. The researchers have already turned an inexpensive sports bra into a wearable heart rate monitor with eight strategically placed sensors versus Fitbit’s one.
RELATED: MIT Has Designed a Workout Suit Covered With Living Cells to Keep You Cool
Trisha Andrew runs the Wearable Electronics Lab at UMass Amherst where the conductive coating was developed. She said that her research team took inspiration from the reactive vapor deposition process used in the semiconductor industry to make the silicon chips in all of our devices.
But instead of using 500-degree ovens and caustic chemical reactants to lay down nanolayers of material, Andrew’s lab used a room-temperature vacuum tube pumped with more environmentally friendly compounds from organic chemistry. They detailed their process in a recent issue of the journal Advanced Functional Materials.