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Posted: August 3, 2007
Fabrics get smart
(Nanowerk News) Electroactive textiles serve as switches, sensors, and more.
If your idea of smart fabrics is a pair of khaki pants that sheds food stains, think again. The smartest fabrics are becoming electroactive, allowing them to address far more important engineering problems than whether you wear your lunch to an afternoon meeting. These textiles can help you build flexible sensing systems, detect chemicals, generate mobile power, and perform other tasks. "More than 70% of the surfaces we interact with daily are textiles. Once those textiles can carry data and electrical power, it opens up a huge new world of applications," says Stacey Burr, president of Textronics Inc, a developer of smart-fabric technology.
Rather than just a single material, electroactive smart fabrics encompass many combinations of textiles and electrically conductive materials. Though manufacturers often base smart fabrics on elastomeric fibers, such as Lycra, they can also create them from a wide variety of synthetic and even natural fibers. Various knit, woven, and nonwoven fabrics can all be smart, too. As for the electrical properties, smart fabrics most commonly contain fine metal wires, either in the yarn of the fabric or in the fabric alongside ordinary textile fibers. Other smart fabrics get their electrical properties from ICPs (inherently conductive polymers) or nanocomposites deposited as coatings on the fabric's fibers.
All of these electroactive smart fabrics have a way to go before they become commonplace engineering materials. Some of the textiles, particularly those that rely on nanotechnology, are available only in quantities suitable for development work. Others, although fully commercial, may not have enough of a track record to alleviate the kinds of technical concerns that design engineers bring up within minutes of evaluating a technology. "Smart fabric is still something of a black art," says Maggie Orth, president and founder of International Fashion Machines, a developer of smart-fabric products.