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New Smart Material Could Help Ultramarathoners and Nursing-Home Patients Alike

A group of researchers detailed a new material that can detect changes in the wearer’s body temperature, which could help to create smart fabrics that act as an early-warning health alert system.

The new material is able to sense subtle changes in body heat, according to a paper published in January’s ACS Applied Nano Materials, and is a viable candidate for reusable or disposable wearables due to its pliable, disordered structure.

The material can detect changes in the electrical resistance of its structure caused by increasing body heat and then communicate this information to a monitor either worn in products like medical garments and performance apparel or accessed remotely.

“Your body can tell you something is wrong before it becomes obvious,” said University of Houston physics professor Seamus Curran, who co-authored the study. “Possible applications range from detecting dehydration in an ultra-marathoner to the beginnings of a pressure sore in a nursing home patient.”

Earlier in their careers, Curran and fellow co-authors Kang-Shyang Liao and Alexander J. Wang developed a hydrophobic nanocoating for cloth that formed the foundation for their later research.

Nearly a decade later, the trio has created the new material from “poly(octadecyl acrylate)-grafted multiwalled carbon nanotubes” also known as nanocarbon-based disordered, conductive, polymeric nanocomposites or DCPN materials.

The problem Curran and his team encountered, however, was that DCPN materials do not conduct electricity very well, a crucial component for wearable smart fabrics. To circumvent this obstacle, they used a technique called RAFT-polymerization to bond an attached polymer to the multiwalled carbon nanotubes.

Researchers claim the material is cost-effective, as most of the raw materials required to produce it are used in “relatively low concentrations.”