Knitted fabric illuminated by embedded light emitting fiber.  Credit: Pictures taken by Greg Hren. Owner: Michael Rein and Yoel Fink.

Woven optical fibres allows fabrics to communicate

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Weaving semiconductors into clothing has proven a tangled affair, but US researchers have found out how to manufacture semiconductor wires fit with LEDS and sensors that can be woven directly into fabric. Knitting semiconductors into fabrics will unlock a tapestry of new electronic wearables, they say, with their prototype already primed to measure a wearer's heart rate. The semiconductor fibres also passed the washing machine durability test, with ten cycles in a household washing machine barely causing a flicker of damage.

Journal/conference: Nature

Organisation/s: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Light-emitting diodes and sensors can be woven directly into textile-grade polymer fibres by means of a new fabrication method unveiled in this week’s Nature. The process could be used to create new forms of wearable technology capable of performing optical communication and health monitoring.

Semiconductor diodes that can emit or detect light are fundamental building blocks in communication and sensor technologies. Building them into fabrics could unlock a tapestry of new electronic wearables. It has proven knotty, however, to marry the function of semiconductor devices with the scalability of fibre-based textiles.

Yoel Fink and colleagues start with a larger polymer mass containing the semiconductor devices alongside a hollow channel. The material is heated and drawn out while wire is spooled into the channels, forming an extended strand of fibre with electrically connected diodes — either light-emitting or photodetecting — spaced out along its length. The process is inherently scalable, allowing the fashioning of hundreds of metres of these functional fibres. Once drawn, the fibres can be easily woven into fabric.

The authors demonstrate the durability of their diode fibres by running them through ten cycles in a standard, household washing machine, which did not negatively impact their performance. They also show that a two-way optical communication link can be established between two fabrics containing light-detecting and light-emitting fibres, and that the smart textiles can be used for measurements of the wearer’s heart rate.

The new manufacturing process provides a pattern from which to knit up fabrics with even more advanced functions, the authors conclude, opening up the potential for a Moore’s law analogue for smart textiles and wearable technologies of ever-increasing sophistication.

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