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Material | October 22, 2007

Convergence of Electronics industries<br>fostering new advances in smart fabrics

The convergence of textiles, chemical engineering, materials and electronics is likely to lead to the evolution of the next generation of smart fibers and fabrics that can genuinely act in an intelligent manner.
New analysis from Frost & Sullivan finds that on-going developments in the field of smart fabrics hold out tremendous potential for the concept, promising their use in the likes of healthcare applications (remotely monitoring health parameters), security (detecting danger and calling for help), and display of helpful data (communication through Internet or communication between people).

“Smart fabrics/textiles comprise of smart materials and structures that sense and react to external environmental conditions and can alter their own state and functionality,” notes Frost and Sullivan Research Analyst R.Srimathy. “Potential applications for these innovative textiles include building flexible sensing systems, detection of chemicals, gases and generation of mobile power, among others.”

Furthermore, their gamut of applications could widen ever further once industry experts enable these textiles to carry data and power. Realizing this, researchers and scientists across the globe are working toward using light as the power source for wearables. Researchers from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, have developed innovative synthetic fibers that generate electricity when exposed to light. Researchers believe that the fibers could be woven into washable clothes that make it applicable in portable solar cells.

Nanotechnology is another area that is driving the development of smart textiles while continuing to provide the necessary impetus for research in this sector. Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) based fibers are said to be the ultimate textile fiber, having a unique blend of properties. These fibers are fine, approximately one nanometer in size, very strong, light in weight, have high specific strength and are electrically and thermally conductive.

Interestingly, ultra-strong CNT fibers made of lightweight CNTs developed by Los Alamos scientist Yuntian Zhu are said to be tougher than diamonds and one-ten-thousandth of a human hair in diameter. The company has named these ultrastrong CNT fibers as SuperThread. Researchers envision the use of these materials in airplanes, automobiles, and sports equipment. Other applications include bulletproof vests, electronic devices and artificial limbs.

Nowithstanding such progresses in technology, development of products using smart textile technology remains a highly expensive affair, demanding enormous R&D spending. This cost factor is a major barrier to ensuring their affordability and will continue to remain unaddressed until there is a mass acceptance of products using this technology.

“In addition to price concerns, issues related to the durability and performance of smart fabrics exist” says Srimathy. “The other notable challenge is the physical integration of fabrics with traditional rigid electronics, which requires new approaches to interface and interconnect designs.”

Overall, this sophisticated and complicated technology has now gained entry in the market from research laboratories and is set to have a substantial impact on the textile industry. There is rapidly growing market for smart fabrics and in the future, wearables will be seen in biomedical devices, sportswear, communication systems, display technologies, military garments, and sensor networks.

Advances in High Tech Polymer Fibers and Smart Fabrics is part of the Technical Insights Subscription. It provides an overview of smart fabrics along with key drivers, challenges, advances and ongoing developments related to their various applications. In this research, Frost & Sullivan's expert analysts thoroughly examine smart fabrics used for medical, military, and personal protection applications. Interviews with the press are available.

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