Chinese researchers developed new fibers to turn T-shirts into electronic devices

Smart wearable devices have become part of daily life and play an important role in health monitoring, telemedicine, human-computer interaction and other fields. But turning electronic components into daily clothes like T-shirts is not that easy as they have to be powered by rigid batteries and process data with chips.

This dilemma may no longer be valid as a team of Chinese researchers has developed a new layered textile that can be lit up by the touch of a finger and the study has been published in the Science journal on April 4. 

In the study, the research team from Donghua University’s College of Materials Science proposed a non-von Neumann architecture that breaks the traditional linear sequential information process and integrates energy harvesting, information sensing, and signal transmission functionalities into one thread.

The new fiber couples the human body as part of a circuit to gather ambient electromagnetic energy, and thus it does not need any additional batteries for power.

A comparison of the new body-coupled fiber versus the traditional electronic clothes (L); The composition of the new layered fiber (R). /Donghua University

A comparison of the new body-coupled fiber versus the traditional electronic clothes (L); The composition of the new layered fiber (R). /Donghua University

This innovative fiber is composed of three distinct layers using readily available materials. The core of the fiber functions as an antenna capable of sensing alternating electromagnetic fields, crafted from silver-plated nylon fibers. The intermediate layer is composed of a dielectric layer made from BaTiO3 composite resin, which is optimized to enhance the coupling capacity of electromagnetic energy. On the outside is an electric field-sensitive luminescent layer composed of zinc sulfide (ZnS) composite resin.

“The low cost of raw materials and the ability to use established processing techniques make it feasible to mass-produce this smart fabric,” said Yang Weifeng, the first writer of the study and a doctoral student at Donghua University.

The material can be interwoven into clothes for fabric display, wireless instruction transmission and other functions without using chips or batteries.

A researcher demonstrates the wireless body-coupled textile used for tactile, patterned-pixel display. /Donghua University

A researcher demonstrates the wireless body-coupled textile used for tactile, patterned-pixel display. /Donghua University

Clothes made of the new fibers can be interactive and luminous and can also remotely control electronic products wirelessly by generating unique signals for different postures by users, according to Hou Chengyi, a member of the research team and also a researcher at the State Key Laboratory for Modification of Chemical Fibers and Polymer Materials.

“These innovative features are expected to expand the application scenarios of electronic products and could even transform the way people experience smart living,” he said.

The team is working on refining the fibers’ energy-harvesting abilities from the surrounding space and expanding their functions to include displays, shape-changing, computing, and artificial intelligence. 

“We believe that soon, smart clothing will be capable of doing much more, making humans more powerful and better adapted to their environment,” said research team leader Wang Zhihong, a professor at Huadong University.