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What Are the Latest Developments in Electronic Clothing?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

The future is always a roaming target but sometimes the promises it entails finally become realized. Electronic clothing is no exception to this, with science fiction authors inventing creative applications and the scientists developing theories behind them. For years this was the extent of electronic clothing as a field, but recent advancements have changed that. Let’s finally explore the new technologies that electronic clothing is bringing to our world.

Changing Patterns

One major hurdle in creating electronic clothing is flexibility. While wiring is able to be manipulated, it lacks the functionality we would require to integrate electronics into our designs. A group of researchers from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as well as the University of California in Berkley has found a way to accommodate this using “a silicon honeycomb-serpentine reconfigurable electronic platform” which has the capacity to change into different shapes while maintaining functionality. Their inspiration came from several natural objects like the honeycomb of a beehive and the unfurling of a flower in the morning, then taking the stresses those parts undergo and finding the right patterning to allow transitions between states without compromising the structure. Based on the physical alterations occurring, the electronics will register that change and so as a sensor it could inform you about what the mesh is attached to (Frum).


Electronic Yarn

While that is a great progression, is it really going to be like the clothing we currently wear? That is what a new material from Drexel University accomplishes with yarn being enhanced with a coating of MXene, a black conductive substance made of titanium carbide. This yarn functions much like a normal textile when arranged into clothing and lacks the fragile nature of previous attempts using metallic substances. The breakthrough was when MXene was found to be coatable onto different substances with just the simple addition of water. That’s it, making it very environmentally friendly to apply. The team also found that by infusing the yarn with smaller flakes of MXene then coating the outside of the yarn with larger flakes greatly improved the conductive properties without losing the flexibility desired. To see the performance of their new materials, they applied this to yarn made of bamboo, cotton, and linen, and then each was tied into 3 different sweater patterns (single jersey, half gauge, and interlock). All were put through standard wear-and-tear testing and held up to their normal counterparts but with the added bonus of the conductivity being preserved. Different patterns should yield different results for conductive properties that remain to be seen. And with the potential for integration with existing technology, your clothing could literally power devices. Oh, yes (Faulstick, Berger “MXene”).


Passive Power

But why stop there? Sure we can have ourselves a highly conductive material but how could I gather energy from something passive. Very passive. Like, say, by exploiting the temperature difference between you and the environment around you. This was achieved after researchers from the Faculty of Science of the University of Malaga and the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa developed a T-shirt which is not only cheap to produce but also generates electricity based on temperature differentials between the wearer and the exterior of the shirt. To accomplish this, a solution was developed consisting of water, ethanol, tomato skins, and carbon nanoparticles. When heated, the solution is able to join with cotton and develop electrical properties like many metals out there but with the bonus of being sourced from biodegradable materials and with the ability to generate electricity based on temperature changes the material undergoes. Sweet! (Guerrero)


Transformative Power

In a similar vein, scientists from Purdue University developed a textile that also takes advantage of biomechanical energy while remaining durable enough to undergo common clothing events such as a washing machine and yet still function. The trick was to use fluoroalkylated organosilanes which do not impact the functionality of either the clothing or the electronics and are easy to spray at a nanoscale. This has allowed the implementation of triboelectric nanogenerators which collect energy from static electricity! And the material can be sprayed onto common materials like cotton, spandex, and wool, which allow it to be woven just like a textile. Other findings show a cost of about 4 cents per square centimeter and about 600 microwatts of power per square centimeter possible. When the fabric is compressed or rubbed, static electricity activates the fabric, allowing charges to flow and implement certain electronic features (Berger “How”).

Works Cited

Berger, Michael. “How to turn every piece of clothing into an e-textile.” Nanowerk.com. Nanowerk, 31 Jul. 2019. Web. 28 Feb. 2020.

---. “MXene-coated yarns as platform technology for e-textiles.” Nanowerk.com. Nanowerk, 11 Sept. 2019. Web. 04 Mar. 2020.

Faulstick, Britt. “That new yarn? – wearable, washable textile devices are possible with MXene-coated yarns.” Innovations-report.com. innovations report, 11 Oct. 2019. Web. 27 Feb. 2020.

Frum, Larry. “Reconfigurable electronics show promise for wearable, implantable devices.” Innovations-report.com. innovations report, 09 Oct. 2019. Web. 26 Feb. 2020.

Guerrero, Maria. “T-shirt generates electricity from temperature difference between body and surroundings.” 25 Nov. 2019. Web. 27 Feb. 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Leonard Kelley

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