National initiative will weave technology into smart fabrics

The University is included in the $317M collaboration that meshes research and industry.

Keaton Schmitt

Your pants may soon be able to charge your phone after a new research push.
 
 
Two weeks ago, a new nonprofit research endeavor by universities and private companies nationwide secured $317 million to develop fabrics that could revolutionize clothing.
 
 
By connecting industry researchers and manufacturers, the initiative — Advanced Functional Fabrics of America —will quicken the transition from new findings to consumer products, said Yoel Fink, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and director of AFFOA.
 
 
Current wearable technology is mostly limited to things like Fitbit, Fink said, which can take simple measurements such as heart rate.
 
 
Researchers want to be able to design advanced fabrics to do things like monitor insulin levels or change color on command, said Julianna Abel, a lead researcher representing the University of Minnesota in the collaboration.
 
 
Advanced fibers woven into clothing could potentially harness energy from surroundings or the wearer to charge electronics, she said.
 
 
Clothes could be made that automatically adjust to let in more or less air, tighten automatically, or monitor a user’s biometrics, she said.
 
 
In the future, clothes could take people’s biometrics daily, in place of yearly checkups, which would help physicians care for patients, Fink said.
 
 
The researchers will engineer at the fiber level, said Fink, adding that they want to make the base parts of fabric work as semiconductors, allowing their use as “smart fabrics.”
 
 
Because fabrics are made by weaving together a mass of fibers, researchers can manipulate its structure to integrate basic technology, Fink said.
 
 
New smart fabric technology is leagues from past wearable technology, said Brad Holschuh, co-director of the University’s Wearable Technology Laboratory. 
 
 
“The long-term goal in this effort … is to develop fibers themselves that have these abilities … to be dynamic and active,” Holschuh said. 
 
 
Holschuh said working at the fiber level also lets researchers make fabric with advanced uses that don’t show until it is used.
 
 
“I think the ultimate dream is to make a shirt that looks like a shirt … but is imbued with additional function,” he said.
 
 
Funding for the project originally came from the U.S. Department of Defense, with partial matching funds from companies and colleges, said Mos Kaveh, associate dean at the College of Science and Engineering.
 
 
The University has tentatively budgeted as much as $1 million of annual funding for the project, Kaveh said.
 
 
Minnesota-based 3M is also a partner on the project and a large investor in the fiber industry, said Fink.
 
 
The specific projects researchers will work on have not been chosen yet, Kaveh said, as AFFOA members are still organizing and planning a research course.
 
 
“I could see the University and industry partners playing a very key role moving forward,” Fink said.