For the first time, researchers have found a way to fully integrate circuitry into fabrics, giving wearable tech a possibly brighter future.
Recently, researchers at the University of Cambridge have shown us how 2D materials can be integrated into textiles to create washable circuits.
The technology could open the door for things like ‘smart clothing’ and better wearable electronics. While this may sound like a huge splash for the wearable tech market (and it is), it could also be a subtly groundbreaking tech in many other fields.
These washable circuits have huge potential, and they answer the following question: How can you fit electronics into cloth, and why would you want to?How do you make electronic shirts? Graphene, of course. #internetoftextilesClick To Tweet
Washable Circuits: A new Style for Industry 4.0
I’ve seen shirts with electronics, but they have always required hard plastics or rubber woven into the cloth.
What we’re talking about here is completely different, thanks in part to graphene, the miracle 2D material of the next industrial revolution. Read here about the latest advancements in creating graphene structures.
These ‘textile electronics’ work by integrating graphene and other 2D materials into an inkjet printing process. That ink is then printed onto a polyester fabric. The process works because of the low boiling point of the inks and the relative durability of polyester.
By using graphene’s conductive properties, the researchers were able to print electronic circuits directly onto fabric. That means no bulky plastics, and a longer lifespan for the electronics.
The textile electronics are low-cost, sustainable, and they don’t need any new techniques to integrate them into the cloth. They’re also washable for about 20 wash cycles.
To me, the most interesting part is the relatively low power required by the printed circuits. I wouldn’t be very happy with needing a battery pack for my shirt, after all.
According to the paper’s first author, PhD student Tian Carey, “The printed components are flexible, washable, and require low power, essential requirements for applications in wearable electronics.”
So, thanks to graphene, we have actual electronics integrated into clothing. What’s more, they’re ripe for new applications. But that begs the question: What kinds of applications could we see from this technology?
What can we do With Washable Circuits
To begin talking about applications of this technology, let’s think practically about what electronically active clothes could do for you.
According to Dr. Felice Torrisi, “Turning textile fibres into functional electronic components can open up an entirely new set of applications from healthcare and wellbeing to the Internet of Things.”
For example, say you connect your shirt to the local WiFi network. With that, it could conceivably access a cloud data bank loaded with many different displays. That could turn your favorite shirt into, well, your favorite shirt, but with more options.
The idea here is that electronic clothing could become integrated with the Internet of Things. That would give us the freedom for a virtually unlimited amount of applications based on how it displays and interacts with data.
The possibilities don’t simply end with displays, however. Torrisi mentioned applications in healthcare, and those could be huge when it comes to saving lives. For example, there are many biomonitors being researched that could benefit from integration with textiles.
You could, for instance, have a hospital gown with interactive sensors and displays. That could replace some of the bulkier monitoring equipment that currently inhabits hospital rooms across the world.
Other possibilities for washable circuits include military technology, memory storage, and even energy harvesting. Who would like it if their pants could charge their phones? I sure would.I would probably get more exercise if my pants charged my phone. #wearmytechClick To Tweet
For now, however, this innovation is still very much in the research phase. When it becomes commercial, I think it could be one of those technologies that crop up everywhere. In fact, I think people will get used to the idea very quickly. Just like how people can hardly imagine a life before smartphones.