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This Rainproof, Stainproof E-Textile Lets You ‘Interface With a Machine’

A new smart fabric developed by Purdue University researchers could be one electronic textile to rule them all.

It’s rainproof and stainproof, and brings a new perspective to the world of intelligent fabrics.

Scientists affiliated with Purdue University’s School of Industrial Engineering developed a novel method of producing electronic textiles (e-textiles) that are simple and cheap enough for mass production.

This advancement in textile technology is all thanks to omniphobic triboelectric nanogenerators, otherwise known as RF-TENGs, which are thin, flexible devices that harvest the energy produced by human motion. These very small components can make any piece of clothing into a “mechanism for powering devices,” according to the university’s statement.

Essentially, this process creates a system of self-powered generators inside a garment’s fabric that then can be connected to external devices, including touch-operated sensors.

“It is the first time there is a technique capable to transform any existing cloth item or textile into a self-powered e-textile containing sensors, music players or simple illumination displays using simple embroidery without the need for expensive fabrication processes requiring complex steps or expensive equipment,” Ramses Martinez, an assistant professor in the School of Industrial Engineering and one of four researchers on the project, explained in the university’s statement.

In conducting their research, the Purdue team identified several challenges facing modern wearables, including issues with breathability, washability and an incompatibility with mass production. Purdue said clothing produced using RF-TENG technology is also antibacterial, stainproof, odor-resistant and cost-effective.

Additionally, researchers said that garments incorporating RF-TENGs indicate “excellent durability under mechanical deformations,” including “remarkable washing durability” when tested using standard washing machines.

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According to Martinez, smart apparel made with RF-TENGs could end up being an important advancement in “the development of wearable machine-human interfaces” and likely a crucial step in bringing the technology to market. The university and the research team are looking for partners to help test and commercialize the technology.

“While fashion has evolved significantly during the last centuries and has easily adopted recently developed high-performance materials, there are very few examples of clothes on the market that interact with the user,” Martinez said. “Having an interface with a machine that we are constantly wearing sounds like the most convenient approach for a seamless communication with machines and the Internet of Things.”