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3D-Printed Smart Textiles Consume Less Energy, Water, Chemicals

Sweden’s University of Borås said Tuesday it may have cracked the code on creating smart textiles at scale, unveiling a new method of production that utilizes 3D printing to increase the efficiency in which they are made.

Doctoral student Razieh Hashemi Sanatgar is responsible for the breakthrough, conducting the research as part of the university’s Sustainable Management and Design in Textiles doctorate program. The new method means that several stages of typical smart textile production can be “cut out,” she said, thanks to the discovery of a new polymeric material—similar to polyurethane foam and PVC—that is electrically conductive and can be used as feeding material for 3D printers.

“The goal of my research is to develop an integrated and tailor-made production process for smart and functional textiles that simultaneously uses less water, energy, chemicals and makes less waste and thus leaves as little an imprint on the environment as possible, while at the same time being of benefit from a production point of view, as the method is both cost and resource-efficient,” Sanatgar said.

The university said that the current method of manufacturing smart textiles still largely relies on screen or inkjet printing technology, which can require a sizeable amount of energy, chemicals and water. However, with Sanatgar’s material, 3D printing of smart textiles sidesteps those constraints.

Infused with electrically conductive “nanofillers,” like carbon nanotubes and carbon black, the material is capable of retaining its conductive properties even after being fed through a 3D printer.

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Sanatgar said that much of the challenge was filling in the gaps of a technology sector that is largely unexplored.

“As 3-D printing on textiles is a novel technology, the adhesion of polymers and nanocomposites on textiles has not been thoroughly explored,” she explained. “What we have now done is a systematic study where we have investigated the effect of different printing process parameters on the adhesion of polymers and nanocomposites on textiles.”

Sanatgar’s work could have many possible applications, according to the university, including the production of smart bandages, VR gloves, performance apparel with temperature-sensing properties, medical equipment, and materials for the automotive and aerospace industries. All said, the new method may be useful for any product that requires careful placement of electronically conductive material on textiles.

“Another benefit is that it is possible to get customized production with printing the nanocomposite directly on the textile material on the exact places needed,” Sanatgar said.

In September, Purdue University released its own answer to producing smart textiles at scale, triboelectric nanogenerators (also known as RF-TENGs), which can be formed into a system of electrically conductive generators placed within the garment itself.