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New Nanofibers Could Lay Groundwork for the Future of Wearable Tech

Scientists at the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications in China unveiled a new method of developing nanofibers that could bring wearable electronics and smart fabrics closer to practicality.

The research is detailed in a report published by NANO, a nanoscience journal, and details a production method that can create “stretchable conductive fibers” that are low-cost and scalable. The fibers will have a uniform morphology, a high level of conductivity and good mechanical strength, according to university researchers.

The method Nanjing researchers pioneered repurposes the natural “capillary action” of cotton, nylon and polyester and infuses those fibers with a silver solution coating them from the inside as it is absorbed through their “capillary tunnels,” essentially the open space inside of hollow tubular structures. By doing so, the researchers at Nanjing tackled a common problem that has plagued wearable technology since its inception: typical conductive fibers are created from stainless steel or copper wires, or other rigid metals and are not often flexible or comfortable enough to be used for apparel.

The research paper states that smart textiles made with this technology will be capable of supporting sensors, light-emitting diodes, transistors, batteries and supercapacitors, which will allow for a wide range of uses from the nanotech-equipped wearables that use it—all while being flexible enough to wear regularly like any other piece of apparel. All in all, this means that wearable apparel could do much more than simply light up or play pre-recorded messages.

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From the beginning, wearable technology’s objective has been to create an experience that is both comfortable and practical while adding new value in the form of technological enhancements. However, as the researchers in this project point out, a great deal of effort has been put forth to produce this outcome in the form of metal nanomaterials, carbon nanotubes and graphene that were unable to be reproduced in a cost-effective and large-scale manner. Nanjing researchers believe that their technology holds some promise in conquering this challenge.

However, they aren’t alone in their belief that nanotechnology and small-scale advancements in apparel could become a big business in the future.

In 2016, the University of Central Florida’s Nanoscience Technology Center created some of the first solar-power absorbing nanofibers to locally power electronics. And, recently, a Nottingham Trent University Ph.D. student created flea-sized solar cells that measure 3 cm long by 1.5 cm wide and could feasibly be introduced into apparel textiles to power electronics, as well. As batteries and solar cells become smaller, it is possible research like this will be able to bridge the gap and create apparel with unprecedented capabilities.