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Advances in smart fabrics promise new applications
6 February 2008, News

The convergence of textiles, chemical engineering, materials and electronics is likely to lead to the evolution of the next generation of smart fibres and fabrics that can act in an intelligent manner.

New analysis from Frost & Sullivan finds that ongoing developments in the field of smart fabrics hold tremendous potential for the concept. Smart textiles could have uses in healthcare applications, security and communication.

"Smart fabrics comprise of smart materials and structures that sense and react to external environmental conditions and can alter their own state and functionality," notes Frost and Sullivan research analyst, R. Srimathy. "Potential applications for these innovative textiles include building flexible sensing systems, detecting chemicals and gases, and generating mobile power."

The number of potential applications could widen ever further once industry experts enable these textiles to carry data and power. Realising this, researchers and scientists across the globe are working toward using light as the power source for 'wearables'.

Researchers from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, have developed innovative synthetic fibres that generate electricity when exposed to light. Researchers believe that the fibres could be woven into washable clothes to serve as portable solar cells.

Nanotechnology is another area that is driving the development of smart textiles while continuing to provide the necessary impetus for research in this sector. Carbon nanotube (CNT)-based fibres have a unique blend of properties that could make them the ultimate textile fibre. These fibres are fine, approximately one nanometre in size, very strong, light in weight, have high specific strength and are electrically and thermally conductive.

Interestingly, ultra-strong CNT fibres made of lightweight CNTs developed by Los Alamos scientist Yuntian Zhu are said to be tougher than diamonds and one-ten-thousandth of a human hair in diameter. The company has named these ultrastrong CNT fibres 'SuperThread'.

Researchers envision the use of these materials in aeroplanes, cars and sports equipment. Other applications include bulletproof vests, electronic devices and artificial limbs.

Notwithstanding such progresses in technology, the development of products using smart textile technology remains highly expensive, demanding enormous R&D spending. This cost factor is a major barrier to ensuring their affordability and will continue to remain unaddressed until there is a mass acceptance of products using this technology.

"In addition to price concerns, there are issues related to the durability and performance of smart fabrics," says Srimathy. "The other notable challenge is the physical integration of fabrics with traditional rigid electronics, which requires new approaches to interface and interconnect designs."

Overall, this sophisticated and complicated technology has now gained entry in the market from research laboratories and is set to have a substantial impact on the textile industry. There is a rapidly growing market for smart fabrics and, in the future, Frost & Sullivan believes that wearables will be seen in biomedical devices, sportswear, communication systems, display technologies, military garments and sensor networks.

For more information contact Patrick Cairns, Frost & Sullivan, +27 (0)21 680 3274.


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