Smart fabrics, clothes that can talk to devices
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US embedded high speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs), within fibres that were then woven into soft, washable fabrics and made into communication systems.
Scientists at MIT have incorporated electronics into soft fabrics, potentially making it possible to produce clothing that communicates optically with other devices.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US embedded high-speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs), within fibers that were then woven into soft, washable fabrics and made into communication systems.
This marks the achievement of a long-sought goal of creating "smart" fabrics by incorporating semiconductor devices - the key ingredient of modern electronics - which until now was the missing piece for making fabrics with sophisticated functionality, researchers said.
Optical fibers have been traditionally produced by making a cylindrical object called a "preform," which is essentially a scaled-up model of the fiber, then heating it.
Softened material is then drawn or pulled down under tension and the resulting fiber is collected on a spool, according to the study published in the journal Nature.
The "breakthrough" for producing these new fibers was to add to the preform light-emitting semiconductor diodes the size of a grain of sand, and a pair of copper wires a fraction of a hair's width.
When heated in a furnace during the fiber-drawing process, the polymer preform partially liquefied, forming a long fiber with the diodes lined up along its center and connected by the copper wires.
In this case, the solid components were two types of electrical diodes made using standard microchip technology: LEDs and photo-sensing diodes.
"Both the devices and the wires maintain their dimensions while everything shrinks around them" in the drawing process, said MIT graduate student Michael Rein.
The resulting fibers were then woven into fabrics, which were laundered 10 times to demonstrate their practicality as possible material for clothing.
"This approach adds a new insight into the process of making fibers," said Rein.
"Instead of drawing the material altogether in a liquid state, we mixed in devices in particulate form, together with thin metal wires," he said.
One of the advantages of incorporating function into the fiber material itself is that the resulting fiber is inherently waterproof.
To demonstrate this, the team placed some of the photo detecting fibers inside a fish tank.
A lamp outside the aquarium transmitted music through the water to the fibers in the form of rapid optical signals.
The fibers in the tank converted the light pulses - so rapid that the light appears steady to the naked eye - to electrical signals, which were then converted into music.
The fibers survived in the water for weeks.
The first commercial products incorporating this technology will be reaching the marketplace as early as next year - an extraordinarily short progression from laboratory research to commercialization, said Yoel Fink, a professor at MIT.
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