OSU tech could make smart textiles cheaper, more durable

By Jonah Comstock
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A new approach to smart textiles could lead to a host of new use cases and a level of durability that might make the technology much more attractive to adopt. 

A team led by John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at The Ohio State University, and Professor Asimina Kiourti is investigating a technology that uses machine embroidery to sew electronics, including circuits and antennas, directly onto textiles. Using a thin silver thread, their technique is able to achieve geometric accuracy to 1 mm and create smart textiles that are resilient to stretching, bending, washing, and high and low temperatures — the normal wear and tear of clothing. The thread also makes smart textiles relatively cheap to manufacture.

"There’s a lot of research on smart garments," Kiourti told Babyforyou.net.ua. "So there are leggings that monitor muscular activity. Or there’s smart T-shirts that monitor heart activity. But in those cases you can see bulky things sticking out and that’s where the electronics are. This is the first time the electronics are actually embroidered in the thread. No need to remove any components before washing or anything."

The applications for the technology are wide-ranging, Kiourti said. Embroidering antennas onto garmets could allow clothing that would boost cellphone, Bluetooth, or radio signals, which could have consumer, military, and enterprise applications. In the healthcare space, it could allow for many different kinds of unobtrusive vital sign monitoring.

"One example is smart caps that detect data activity. Examples include people who have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or epilepsy," Kiourti said. "These people currently have to [get] surgery to monitor brain activity and you have to have wires coming out while their head is open and everything. So our vision is to have a smart cap that would communicate to wireless equipment and record brain activity directly on your cellphone. ... Other examples would be some smart bedsheets and smart masks where babies could lie while they’re sleeping and the masks would send vitals or measurements."

While the technology is tested, Kiourti said, there are still things to work out. For instance, while antennas and circuits can be sewn into the fabric, sensors themselves and other components still need to be rigid. In the long run, Kiourti thinks the sensor itself could be embedded in the textiles, but in the meantime they will need to develop a way to interface the two. In addition, for the health applications, researchers will need to deal with the data privacy and security implications of always-on sensors in clothing. 

Through OSU's Technology Commercialization Office, researchers are pursuing patents and commercialization avenues, while also continuing to do academic research into the technology. 

"We’re looking for that killer application that people will look for," Kiourti said. "So the things I mentioned like having a smart bedsheet to monitor vitals. Or having antennas in clothes. These are all things that have come up for discussion in the industry, but we’re on the lookout for a specific product that could really make it into the market. But in terms of technology, we’re ready for it. We’re just sort of exploring potential applications and people who could benefit from it."