Researchers who are working to develop wearable electronics1 have reached a milestone: They are able to embroider circuits into fabric with 0.1 mm precision – the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing.
With this advance, the Ohio State University researchers have taken the next step toward the design of functional textiles – clothes that gather, store, or transmit digital information. With further development, the technology could lead to shirts that act as antennas for your smart phone or tablet, workout clothes that monitor your fitness level, sports equipment that monitors athletes’ performance, a bandage that tells your doctor how well the tissue beneath it is healing – or even a flexible fabric cap that senses activity in the brain2.
That last item is one that John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State, and research scientist Asimina Kiourti are investigating. The idea is to make brain implants, which are under development to treat conditions from epilepsy to addiction, more comfortable by eliminating the need for external wiring on the patient’s body3.
“A revolution is happening in the textile industry,” said Volakis, who is also the Roy & Lois Chope Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State. “We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing – and one day even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring.”
Recently, he and Kiourti refined their patented fabrication method to create prototype wearables at a fraction of the cost and in half the time as they could only two years ago. With new patents pending, they published4 the new results in the journal IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters.
In Volakis’ lab, the functional textiles, also called “e-textiles,” are created in part on a typical tabletop sewing machine – the kind that fabric artisans and hobbyists might have at home. Like other modern sewing machines, it embroiders thread into fabric automatically based on a pattern loaded via a computer file. The researchers substitute the thread with fine silver metal wires that, once embroidered, feel the same as traditional thread to the touch.
“We started with a technology that is very well known – machine embroidery – and we asked, how can we functionalize embroidered shapes? How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors?” Volakis said. “Now, for the first time, we’ve achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components.”