4 Incredible Smart Textiles Applications for Future Wearables

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Biomimicry is becoming more advanced and more prominent with the use of textiles. These new and innovative “smart” textiles are helping scientists across biological, medical, and industrial fields to recreate and explore complex structures that occur in the natural world. The possibilities for how these emerging technologies will affect the future seem endless.

In the same way that historians proposed that the sewing needle may have enabled humans to cross the Bering Strait some 35,000 years ago, smart textiles may enable us to cross into uncharted territory.

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Here are 4 potential applications for smart textiles that could change the wearables game:

1. Space Cloth

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Sonia Reynolds with a zephlinear scarf

UK textile designer Sonia Reynolds has invented a new fabric, “space cloth” that is opening up the possibilities of what scientists and developers are able to create from natural fibers. Technically, the new material is known as zephlinear, which is a combination of the words zephyr,” having the historical meaning of a breezy and light piece of clothing and “linear” for the way that the fibers adhere to one another in the process of fabrication, as opposed to traditional weaving methods that usually bind thread together.

Researchers in medical fields have taken particular interest in space cloth, which looks like futuristic gauze, because of its potential to be used as a smart textile.

Because of its unique structure, “it lends itself well to being embedded with microcapsules containing medication or scent, to either help deliver drugs to specific parts of the body or to create antibacterial and aromatic clothing,” says Reynolds.

It is only possible to make this cloth with natural fibers like wool and, as it requires no weaving, it is both easier to make and better for the environment than traditional methods of textile production. Moving away from the ancient yet ubiquitous methods of weaving, knitting, and knotting material to produce textiles is a revolutionary next step for both the textile and biomedical industries.

2. Exoskeleton Suits for Work and Fun

Another advance emerging from smart textiles comes from biomedical engineers at the University of New South Wales. Using biomimicry, they have created a fabric that imitates periosteum, the soft protective tissue that encases most bones in the body. Using digital imaging and 3D printing, researchers were able to recreate the complex structure of the tissue and then manufacture the pattern with digital looms.

Periosteum is like nature’s bubble wrap, without all of the bulk, and the ultimate goal for scientists is to one day be able to weave biological tissues using periosteum’s composition as a guideline.

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While the technology is not quite there yet, Professor Knothe Tate of UNSW has expressed that the research has yielded “a series of textile swatch prototypes that mimic periosteum’s smart stress-strain properties.” The technique is being used to “test other fibers to produce a whole range of new textiles.”

This potentially groundbreaking smart fabric has scientists from various fields intrigued, and there are already plans for using it to make and reinforce designs for uniforms that stiffen and absorb stress for professionals in high impact situations like astronauts in space and race car drivers on the track. Other applications include smart, almost sentient “compression bandages for deep-vein thrombosis that respond to the wearer’s movement.”

The periosteum weave pattern is open to industrial and medical applications as well. At the same time, it is being tested as a prototype for safer, steel-belt radial tires and stress resistant titanium weaves for manufacturing.

3. Future Clandestine Cyborgs, Rejoice!

By examining the ways that organisms in the natural world deal with stress and strain, researchers are able to use muscle fiber coatings in medicine.

Imagine not having the strength to lift a simple object, and just by slipping on a thin fabric sleeve, suddenly feeling capable of throwing a baseball. Though the technology is still in nascent stages, this is where medicine hopes to soon take us with smart textiles and the invention of “knitted muscles.”

Swedish researchers have succeeded in creating these “muscles” by coating regular fabric with an electrically charged material. When a low voltage of electricity is applied to the material, the fibers change in length and weight, the same way that muscles do when activated. These synthetic muscular exoskeletons are placed on the body, and have the same stress- strain structure as muscles. They serve as a sort of outer muscular reinforcement for those who are injured or who may have trouble with mobility. The virtually weightless aspect of the fabric makes it especially appealing to older patients as it will help them be able to adapt more easily to the technology.

4. The New Silk Road Leads to a Laboratory

Silk, the expensive, natural, and versatile byproduct of silk worms, has been a staple of human fabric production for millennia. It is a rare and delicate product that has been impossible to truly recreate, until now.

U.S and Chinese researchers have been working together in a lab where they have created a new kind of silk farm by harvesting the naturally spun silk from artificially inseminated Ornithoctonus Huwena spiders. The spiders are unique in that yes, they can be artificially bred, but more importantly, their silk has a peculiar reaction to the application of water.

When water is applied to a relaxed thread of silk, it immediately shrinks and retracts into itself like paper curling in a fire, except that the fibers remain intact. With the application of another water droplet to the shrunken silk, it just as quickly snaps into an extended state.

Further, just by removing water from the filament, the silk returns to a relaxed state, with the proteins instantly reverting to their original formation. The silk actuates in this manner because the proteins in the spiders’ silk have a strong affinity for water, and the molecules rearrange when exposed to it. The silk’s ability to shrink, extend, and relax, coincide with, and even mimic muscular actions of straining and lifting weight, and healing. This “Spiderman silk” makes flexible components possible, and could have several medical purposes with further research.

Scientists from Sweden and Germany have also managed to recreate the lightweight durability of silk by using artificial whey protein from cow’s milk. With the application of heat and acid to nano-fibrils of whey protein, they have gleaned more information of the nano processes that give silk its one of a kind strength, flexibility, and structure, which has been nearly impossible to recreate artificially in the past. They are hopeful that this method will result in groundbreaking medical opportunities for the creation of bandages that dissolve on their own as well as creating artificial tissues for the future.

They are hopeful that this method will result in groundbreaking medical opportunities for the creation of bandages that dissolve on their own as well as creating artificial tissues for the future.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in Smart Textiles

The ancient art of weaving is becoming more and more advanced thanks to developments in biomimicry. That weaving and fabric manipulation are the basis for new scientific innovations is a surprising and welcoming return to a practice that has sustained human life for thousands of years.

Now that scientists have developed more advanced micro and nano-imaging technology, it is becoming easier for scientists to understand, and therefore recreate natural processes and structures. By applying what we can learn from nature to synthetic and industrial materials, scientists will be able to create even stronger and resistant products.

What’s Next?

Edgy Labs has covered some of the science and startups that are exploring viable applications for harvesting energy from body’s heat and human movement’s kinetic energy.

If we can combine this ability to harvest energy from human movement with these smart textiles, like space cloth, for instance, this would open the door to a whole universe of future wearables and implants.

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