Smart Clothes: Why Someday Your Shirt May Power Your Computer

Or Even Prevent Your Next Cold 

This year, students at Rice University in Houston developed a shoe that can charge a battery—and may someday be able to recharge cell phones and pacemakers. At Rice and other universities, electronic clothing (aka “smart clothes”) is being developed that has the potential to change how people monitor their health, protect themselves from disease, and address a variety of other problems.

Rice’s generator shoe is still a prototype. The shoe cannot yet produce enough usable power for portable electronics, and it is made impractical by a clanking metal bar around the heel. In the fall, however, a new group of engineering students will begin refining the existing model.

But some electronic clothes are closer to becoming part of Americans’ wardrobes—if their inventors can find corporate partners. Electronic fibers already developed by researchers at Cornell University in New York can detect disease and radiation, control the release of pesticides, kill bacteria, and capture hazardous gases. Cornell has filed patents for these fibers, and in the not-so-distant future, some of them may be found in medical clinics, disaster zones, and even ordinary clothing stores.

At Cornell, Dr. Margaret Frey has developed a successful nanofiber device that can detect the presence of E. Coli, anthrax, HIV, cholera, and heart attack indicators. The prototype resembles a home pregnancy test—a liquid sample is placed on one end, and the other produces a positive or negative result, indicating whether a certain pathogen is present.

The device is likely to be as affordable as it is easy to use—the prototype is made out of inexpensive nylon, polyester, and corn-based commodity plastics. Frey thinks that a mass-produced version of the disease detector could be produced for only a few pennies, so it could be used in parts of the developing world where high-tech medical facilities are rare and unavailable to the poor.

“We’ve had great success with developing this in the lab,” Frey tells StateImpact Texas. “To take it out of the lab and onto the shelf of the drug store, we really need an industrial partner at this point. There are lots of publications and patents in place, but we’re lab rats, and we really need partners that know how to take it to the next level.”

Frey has also developed fibers that can detect dangerous radiation levels. The inspiration for the radiation detector came from images of a baby being tested with a Geiger counter after the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor. Frey and her team set out to develop radiation-testing technology that would be both simpler and less intimidating. She envisions the final detection device as an accessory, such as a pin, button, or pendant, that would continuously sample radiation levels in the wearer’s environment.

Once people know they have been exposed to harmful levels of radiation, they can leave the affected area, even temporarily, so there is time for the radiation to diminish in their bodies and the environment.

“It’s something that would be pretty easy to respond to,” Frey said. “[In Austin, you could] say, ‘Hey, the radiation is high here right now, we’re going to go to Dallas for the day.’”

There are possible agricultural applications as well. The team has developed powders and small beads containing controlled-release pesticide fibers that not only detect the amount of pesticide that crops need at a given time, but also release the pesticide accordingly, preventing pesticide from being wasted or unnecessarily washed into nearby bodies of water.

Both Frey and her colleague, Dr. Juan Hinestroza, have developed fibers that would prevent the spread of E. Coli. Frey has developed nanofibers, hundreds of times thinner than a human hair, that can capture the bacteria. Hinestroza and his research team have created strands of cotton yarn that both conduct electricity and inhibit the growth of E. Coli and other bacteria.

Woven into facial masks, hospital sheets, surgical gowns, or even ordinary clothing, Hinestroza said that these fibers have the potential to control the spread of disease and protect people from exposure to toxic substances.

“We are working on a facial mask…to reduce the spreading risk of pandemics,” Hinestroza said. “The ability of nanofibers [to conform] to complex shapes and efficiently capture microbes, viruses, and particles is amazing.”

Electronic fibers also have more playful applications. Lucy Dunne, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, is developing clothes that respond to wearers’ physical signals. One skirt twinkles when the wearer laughs. Other clothes “shiver, flutter, pulse, glow, and crawl” in response to environmental or body signals, according to Dunne’s website. Similarly, an MIT graduate student has created an interactive hoodie that plays musical notes when the sleeves are touched. Hers is customized with LED lights that flash in concert with the music.

Hinestroza hopes to develop electronic textiles advanced enough to serve as a computer.

“We are working on cotton capable of conducting electricity and working as a small computer by creating cotton transistors,” Hinestroza explained. “That will allow the creation of a new generation of textiles that can serve as a computer interface and provide all kinds of functions and interactive behavior to the wearer.”

What role will electronic clothing have in our lives 10 years from now?

“I think it will be part of our daily wardrobe,” Hinestroza said. “Something as common as today’s pair of jeans.”

Holly Heinrich is a reporting intern at StateImpact Texas. 

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Comments

  • Richard Stewart

    Very well done Holly! Have they checked into making shoes with piezo-electric elements that make electricity when stepped on? Also check out grapheme. It’s amazing what will be done with that, e.g., cell phones or tablets that roll up and go in a pocket but have a fairly large screen. When you find out which companies are going to produce this stuff, you can give us a stock tip! Dick Stewart

  • Clare

    Finally some mind blowing news for catastrophic disease and environmental disasters like Japan and the Gulf. Very encouraging! Looks like the human race is moving forward after all!

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