The idea behind the “smart clothing” developed by a Rice University lab, is to make wearable electronics more comfortable. Researchers employed conductive nanotube threads to weave functionality into regular apparel.
Nanotube fibers were sewn into athletic wear to monitor the heart rate and take a continual electrocardiogram (EKG) of the wearer. The fibers are just as conductive as metal wires, but washable, comfortable and far less likely to break when a body is in motion, according to the researchers.
The researchers from Rice University, Houston, TX/USA, noted nanotube
fibers are soft and flexible, and clothing that incorporates them is machine washable. The fibers can be machine-sewn into fabrics just like standard thread. The zigzag stitching pattern allows the fabric to stretch without breaking them.
The fibers provided not only steady electrical contact with the wearer’s skin but also served as electrodes to connect electronics like Bluetooth transmitters to relay data to a smartphone or connect to a Holter monitor that can be stowed in a user’s pocket. The zigzag pattern can be adjusted to account for how much a shirt or other fabric is likely to stretch.
Fibers woven into a fabric can also be used to embed antennas or LEDs, according to the researchers. Minor modifications to the fibers’ geometry and associated electronics could eventually allow clothing to monitor vital signs, force exertion or respiratory rate.