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10th June 2021

Future washable smart clothes powered by Wi-Fi

Researchers at Purdue University, Indiana, have developed a method to transform ordinary clothes into battery-free wearables that are waterproof and resistant to laundry. These smart fabrics can be powered wirelessly through a flexible, silk-based coil sewn on the textile.

 

smart clothing future
Credit: Rebecca McElhoe/Purdue University

 

In the near future, clothing will become smart. These smart clothes will be a desirable alternative to conventional passive garments, thanks to their embedded sensors and miniaturised electronic circuits, allowing people to seamlessly communicate with their phones, computers, cars and other devices. Smart clothing will not only make wearers more productive but also check on their health status and even call for help if they suffer an accident.

The reason why this smart clothing is not in your wardrobe yet is that the fabrication of such apparel is technically very challenging, as clothes need to be periodically washed – and electronics are harmed by water.

Engineers at Purdue University, Indiana, have developed a new spray/sewing method to transform any conventional cloth items into battery-free wearables that can be cleaned in the washing machine.

"By spray-coating smart clothes with highly hydrophobic molecules, we are able to render them repellent to water, oil and mud," explains Ramses Martinez, Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering at Purdue. "These smart clothes are almost impossible to stain and can be used underwater and washed in conventional washing machines without damaging the electronic components sewn on their surface."

 

smart clothing future
Credit: Martinez, et al./Purdue University

 

The rigidity of typical waterproof garments and their reduced breathability can make them feel uncomfortable after being worn for only a few hours. By contrast, "our smart clothes remain as flexible, stretchable and breathable as conventional cotton T-shirts," Martinez said, "thanks to their ultra-thin coating."

Unlike common wearable devices, the Purdue smart clothes do not require batteries for powering. By simply harvesting energy from Wi-Fi or radio waves in the surrounding environment, the clothes can power the circuitry sewn on the textile.

One example is a battery-free glove that illuminates its fingertips every time the user is near a live cable to warn about the possibility of an electric shock (pictured below). Another is a miniaturised cardiac monitoring system on a washable sweatband, capable of monitoring the health status of the wearer.

 

smart clothing future
Credit: Rebecca McElhoe/Purdue University

 

"Such wearable devices, powered by ubiquitous Wi-Fi signals, will make us not only think of clothing as just a garment that keeps us warm but also as wearable tools designed to help us in our daily life, monitor our health and protect us from accidents," said Martinez.

"I envision smart clothes will be able to transmit information about the posture and motion of the wearer to mobile apps, allowing machines to understand human intent without the need of other interfaces, expanding the way we communicate, interact with devices, and play video games."

This new clothing can be fabricated in conventional, large-scale sewing facilities, according to the Purdue team, which is expected to accelerate the development and commercialisation of future smart clothes.

Martinez and his team have published their work in the journal Nano Energy. They also have several videos about the technology on a YouTube channel.

 

 

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