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Soft Washable Fabrics Embedded With Optoelectronic Diodes

[Estimated read time: 3 minutes]
  • Researchers develop soft fabrics with embedded electronics that can be made into clothing. 
  • The discovery could give rise to a new Moore’s Law for fibers. 
  • The early applications would be products related to safety and communications.

Over the last couple of decades, we have seen numerous attempts to enhance the fiber functionality, which can ultimately lead to substantial advantages. Optical fibers are usually produced by creating a cylindrical objects known as “preform” (necessary for scaled-up fiber model), then heating it.

So far, this approach has been limited to materials that are inferior in performance and could be co-drawn in their viscous states. Now researchers at MIT and Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) have incorporated functional semiconductor devices and electrical conductors into a polymer-clad preform.

Specifically, they have integrated high-speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices (such as LEDs and diode photodetectors) with fabrics, which are so soft and flexible they can be made into wearable clothing.

Developing Smart Fabrics

The key methodology to produce these smart fibers was to add preform light-emitting semiconductor diodes (as large as sand grains) and copper wires (thinner than the width of human hair). To connect these diodes with copper wires, they heated the fiber in a furnace, which turned the polymer preform into a partial liquid state.

In the fiber-drawing process, there were two kinds of electrical diodes: LEDs (light emitting diodes and photosensing diodes. Both of them along with the coppers wires retained their original size while all other things around them shrunk. Finally, they wove fibers into fabrics and washed it ten times to demonstrate their possible clothing applications.

This technique adds a new detail to the process of producing fibers. Researchers mixed in devices in particular form along copper wires, rather than just drawing the materials together in the liquid state.

One of the major benefits of this approach is that the produced fiber is completely waterproof. Researchers even demonstrated this by placing photo-detecting fibers in a fish tank. They used a lamp (outside the tank) to transmit optical signals to the fibers through the water. These optical pulses produce music.

Embedded LEDs switching on and off | Courtesy of researchers

The fibers inside the aquarium transformed the light signal into electric signals, converting them into music. The fabric within the water survived for weeks.

Reference: Nature | doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0390-x | MIT

According to the researchers, this study could give rise to a new Moore’s Law for fibers. It represents a pace of progression in which fibers’ capabilities would increase over a span of time, just like the capabilities of silicon chips have enhanced over years.

Applications

Courtesy of researchers

In the coming years, fabrics wouldn’t be only used for comfort and aesthetics, but they will also provide value-added services. Researchers believe that the first commercial product based on this methodology will reach the marketplace as early as next year.

The initial applications would be products related to safety and communications. The smart fibers could also have notable applications in the biomedical branch, for instance, they might be used to -manufacture pulse or blood-oxygen measuring wristbands, and integrated into bandages to regularly monitor wound infection.

Read: New, Efficient Coating Technique Makes Natural Fabrics Water-Repellent

Researchers are currently working to spread this technology to domestic industry and manufactures at an unprecedented scale and speed.

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