Getting Schooled on Smart Fabric

Expert explains how this textile could be used for monitoring asthma and other medical conditions

19 June 2015

Photo: ASSIST/NC State University

You may have been hearing about so-called smart fabric. But what can it actually do, and how is it made? Researcher Jesse Jur, an assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry, and science at North Carolina State, in Raleigh, discussed some of the uses as well as challenges.

WHAT MAKES SMART FABRIC “SMART”?

Smart fabric is something that makes a fabric perform or respond in a way that is not typical. A T-shirt by itself is not smart but if a coating is used on it that kills bacteria or doesn’t have to be washed, then it’s smart, explains Jur. Alternatively, fabrics that respond to their environment by changing color would also be considered smart. Likewise, applying electronics onto textiles can make a smart fabric. The garment is particularly smart if it can sense when your health is in danger.

WHO BENEFITS FROM IT?

Soon all of us will be able to know our entire health history, but smart fabrics would be immediately beneficial to people whose health needs to be constantly monitored to help them improve and manage their personal wellness, says Jur.

Two such medical conditions are asthma and stress. For example, one wearable system that the ASSIST center is working on is designed to correlate the environment (for example, ozone levels or particulate matter) around asthmatics with their physiological health, such as an electrocardiogram signal or respiratory function.

“We want to help diagnose when a person is going into a situation environmentally where they need to remove themselves so they don’t have experience that medical condition,” he explains.

Researchers are also working on finding ways to use the fluids coming from the skin. “We are trying to do non-invasive biochemical sensing from the skin to examine biomarkers that are indicative of a person’s health or stress level,” explains Jur.

In both cases, smart fabric could alert the person by sending a message to a person’s smartphone or by a personal indication through the garment (vibration or light).

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROBLEMS WITH THE FABRIC?

Durability is one of the biggest challenges facing smart textiles and e-textiles, which use clothing or fabric as a platform for integrating electronics.

“The washability of most e-textiles would be like tossing a computer into a washing machine,” he says. “We are also working on ways to interconnect electronics at different locations on garments so they can communicate with each other and last through a significant number of washes and the wear that they take by our everyday use.” The gold standard for the minimum number of washes is 20.

The cost of smart fabric is another concern, but from an implementation standpoint, product need drives demand, he says, and that sets market price. There are a lot of factors beyond just what it costs to pricing these items. “Still, if you want to make this an ubiquitous platform that everyone in our community can access, it really needs to be cheaper than wearable electronics available commercially,” Jur explains.

The center has been able to leverage advancements in the printed electronics industry, which are going toward more flexible, thinner films and high throughput processing. “Textiles can be very inexpensive, and printed electronics are getting a lot cheaper,” he says. “If we can integrate those two technologies together in a seamless manner, then we have an opportunity to make a durable, low cost platform.”

Learn More