An international team of scientists has produced an all-woven smart textile display that integrates active electronics, sensing, energy and photonics functions. Functions are built directly into the fibers and yarns, which are manufactured using textile-based industrial processes.
The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, say their approach could lead to applications that sound like science fiction: curtains that are also televisions, energy harvesting mats and interactive clothing and fabrics and autonomous.
This is the first time that a complex, scalable large-area system has been integrated into textiles using an all-fiber based manufacturing approach. Their results are reported in the newspaper Nature Communication.
Despite recent advances in the development of smart textiles, their functionality, dimensions and shapes are limited by current manufacturing processes.
Incorporating specialist fibers into textiles through conventional weaving or knitting processes means they could be incorporated into everyday objects, opening up a huge range of potential applications. However, to date, the manufacture of these fibers has been limited in size, or the technology has not been compatible with the textiles and the weaving process.
To make the technology compatible with weaving, the researchers coated each fiber component with materials capable of withstanding enough stretch to be used on textile manufacturing equipment. The team also braided some of the fiber-based components to improve their reliability and durability. Finally, they connected several fiber components together using conductive adhesives and laser welding techniques.
By using these techniques together, they were able to incorporate multiple features into a large piece of woven fabric with standard and scalable textile manufacturing processes.
The resulting fabric can function as a screen, monitor various inputs, or store energy for later use. The fabric can detect radio frequency signals, touch, light and temperature. It can also be rolled up, and because it is made using commercial textile manufacturing techniques, large rolls of functional fabric could be made that way.
The researchers say their display prototype paves the way for next-generation e-textile applications in sectors such as smart, energy-efficient buildings capable of generating and storing their own energy, the Internet of Things (IoT ), distributed sensor networks and interactive displays that are flexible and wearable when embedded in fabrics.
“Our approach is based on the convergence of micro and nanotechnology, advanced displays, sensors, energy and technical textile manufacturing,” said Professor Jong min Kim, from the Cambridge Department of Engineering, who co-directed the research with Dr. Luigi Occhipinti and Professor Manish. Chhowala. “This is a step towards the full exploitation of durable and practical e-fibers and e-textiles in everyday applications. And that’s just the beginning.
“By integrating fiber-based electronics, photonics, sensing and energy capabilities, we can create a whole new class of smart devices and systems,” said Occhipinti, also from the engineering department of Cambridge. “Unlocking the full potential of textile manufacturing, we could soon see smart, energy-autonomous Internet of Things devices that integrate seamlessly into everyday objects and many other industry applications.”
Researchers are working with European collaborators to make the technology durable and usable for everyday objects. They are also working to integrate sustainable materials as fiber components, providing a new class of energetic textile systems. Their flexible and functional smart fabric could eventually be transformed into batteries, supercapacitors, solar panels and other devices.
The research was partly funded by the European Commission and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
HW Choi et al. ‘Smart textile lighting/display system with multifunctional fiber devices for large-scale smart home and IoT applications.’ Communication Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-28459-6