These shape-shifting textiles are powered by body heat

A team from the University Minnesota have developed material made from shape memory alloys that can conform accordingly to a person’s body and could be used in space travel.
shape shifting textiles, body heat University Minnesota, shape memory alloys

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a new shape-changing textile that can be used for the development of next-generation smart clothing for space travel and other applications. (Image source: University of Minnesota)

A team at the University of Minnesota has developed a new shape-changing textile that can be used for the development of next-generation smart clothing for space travel and other applications. The material is responsive to temperature and can be used to create self-fitting garments powered only by body heat.

The textiles team includes professors and students in the university’s Design of Active Materials and Structures Lab and Wearable Technology Lab. The textiles resemble typical knits, but instead of traditional material, they are made from shape memory alloys (SMAs). These active materials change shape when heated.

“This technology is a showcase of what is possible when connecting smart materials and traditional textile architectures, Kevin Eschen, a graduate student who worked on the project, told Design News.

Eschen and fellow researchers envision the material can be used for next-generation clothing that can intelligently conform to a person’s body movements for the most optimal fit possible for complete freedom of movement. “I believe this technology highlights a very promising material-textile combination and hope that it inspires smart textile research using many other multifunctional materials and textile architectures (braiding, weaving, etc.) to enable the best smart textile product possible,” said Eschen.

Testing material potential

One area where such clothing would be needed is in the design of clothing for space exploration, which is why it’s not surprising that NASA partnered with the researchers to design and test the textile.

Specifically, the team—led by Eschen, graduate student Rachael Granberry and professors Julianna Abel and Brad Holschuh—studied and observed the unique dimensions and movements of a human leg. They then subsequently designed, manufactured, and tested a knitted garment using their SMA textile that can precisely conform to that topography.

“We have designed leg and wrist sleeves that self-fit to the human body upon donning,” said Eschen. “They are knitted fabrics that utilize shape memory alloy fiber – a nickel-titanium alloy – which has a temperature-dependent material stiffness.”

When body heat or an external force warm the fabric, the material stiffness changes and the fabric changes its shape.  “Through our fabric design process – designing the loop geometry and the knit pattern – we can predict the shape change and accomplish fabric conformity to the complex topography of the human body,” said Eschen.

Changing shape dynamically

Clothing created from the textile can easily transform from loose to tight-fitting, even bending uniquely to conform to places on the body that have irregular shapes, such as the back of the knee.

The team published a paper on its work in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies

The textile can be used to create compression garments that are initially loose fitting and easy to put on, but which could subsequently shrink to tightly squeeze those wearing them. However, this is just one of many uses of the material for next-generation clothing. “I believe [these garments] will be an integral part of our life, sensing physiological changes to provide comfort and support, as well as offering haptic feedback to communicate while maintaining a low profile and looking/feeling like traditional fabrics,” said Eschen.

The researchers plan to continue their work to integrate the textiles into full-sized garments, as well as to better understand on a holistic level how the materials work to better tailor and improve their performance. “Predicting the lifetime performance of these fabrics will also be an important next step toward their realization in products,” said Eschen..

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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