Researchers are making broad strides in developing suitable electronics not only for technology that can be worn, but also is comfortably and can be washed for repeated use.
Some of the latest work comes from researchers at the University of Cambridge, where a team—leveraging the multifaceted material graphene—has successfully incorporated washable, stretchable, and breathable electronic circuits into fabric. The research—a collaboration with scientists in Italy and China in addition to the United Kingdom—paves the wave for new designs in smart textiles and wearable electronics that are more comfortable, environmentally and user-friendly, and can withstand repeated laundering, said Felice Torrisi, a researcher in the Cambridge Graphene Centre.
“Turning textile fibers into functional electronic components can open to an entirely new set of applications from healthcare and wellbeing to the Internet of Things,” he said. “Thanks to nanotechnology, in the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based electronics, such as displays or sensors and become interactive.”
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have used graphene-based ink and an inkjet-printing process to print integrated circuits onto fabric. The development paves the way for more comfortable, user-friendly, and washable wearable electronic devices. (Source: Felice Torrisi)
The nanotechnology the team used is graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that scientists are finding extremely useful for a host of applications due to its versatility.
To print the circuits onto fabric, researchers used low-cost and sustainable graphene and other 2D materials, designing low-boiling inks that they printed directly only polyester fabric. The team used a standard inkjet processing for their work.
“Other inks for printed electronics normally require toxic solvents and are not suitable to be worn, whereas our inks are both cheap, safe and environmentally-friendly, and can be combined to create electronic circuits by simply printing different two-dimensional materials on the fabric,” Torrisi said.
The team solved another key problem designers of wearable technology are facing—that is, dependency on rigid electronic components mounted on plastic, rubber, or textiles to provide power and other functions to wearables. These form factors have a number of limitations, including non-compatibility with the skin as well as general discomfort for the user. They also can be damaged if washed in a typical laundry machine.
The circuits printed by the team, on the other hand, are stretchable, comfortable to be wear, and can survive up to 20 cycles in a typical washing machine, researchers said.
Moreover, they found that modifying the roughness of the fabric improved the performance of the printed devices, allowing them to design not only single transistors, but all-printed integrated electronic circuits combining active and passive components.
The team published a paper about their work in the journal Nature Communications.
The development of environmentally friendly, printed circuits paves the way for a range of commercial applications for 2D material inks, such as personal health and fitness technology, wearable energy-harvesting and storage, and other textiles and clothing in which electronics need to be comfortably integrated, Torrisi said.
“Thanks to nanotechnology, in the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based electronics, such as displays or sensors and become interactive,” he said.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.