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Scientists Create Electrically Conductive Textiles Set to Bring New Meaning to Wearables

A group of researchers is producing technologically advanced textiles that are electrically conductive, breathable and flexible enough for use in manufacturing high-tech apparel for everyday wear.

The team, Dr. Andreas Greiner, chair of Macromolecular Chemistry II at the University of Bayreuth, working with other scientists from Donghua University in Shanghai and Nanjing Forestry University, has successfully developed fabrics that perform functions like converting sunlight to heat to provide body warmth, and supplying electricity to wearable electronic devices. The fabrics also fix past issues researchers faced with electrically conductive fabric, like high rigidity and low air permeability, which means that while these nonwovens are now equipped to deliver high-tech performance, they also have the flexibility to adapt to changes in body movement and allow air to flow freely so the fabric doesn’t disrupt the skin’s natural breathing process.

The researchers use a special production process to produce the textiles, where short electro-spun polymer fibers and a small amount of silver wires, with a diameter of 80 nanometers, are mixed in a liquid, filtered, dried and then heated, resulting in a nonwoven fabric with very high electrical conductivity.

These textiles could create a whole new market for more advanced-tech apparel: clothing equipped with solar cells where sunlight heats up the garment; mobile electronic devices such as phones and mini-computers that can be charged by plugging directly into the fabric; sensors that could be installed into clothing to provide athletes and trainers with fitness and health-related information to aid in the training process; and even sensors that could help locate the wearer were they to go missing.

“In addition to articles of clothing, similar functions could also just as easily be installed in textile materials for use in seats and instruments in cars or airplanes,” Greiner explained.

The collaboration to create the textiles is the result of a two-year-old agreement between the University of Bayreuth and Donghua University, which has a research priority on textiles development. The researchers full findings have been published in the journal, npj Flexible Electronics.