Clothing and footwear that detect human movement could soon become the preferred fashion choice for people recovering from injuries or trying to avoid them as the technology is becoming lighter and less expensive.
A team of engineers at the University of Delaware is developing next-generation smart textiles by creating flexible carbon nanotube composite coatings on a wide range of fibers including cotton, nylon and wool. Their discovery was reported in the journal ACS Sensors where they demonstrate the ability to measure a wide range of pressure – from the light touch of a fingertip to being driven over by a forklift.
Fabric coated with this sensing technology could be used in future “smart garments” where the sensors are slipped into the soles of shoes or stitched into clothing for detecting human motion.
Carbon nanotubes give this light, flexible, breathable fabric coating impressive sensing capability. When the material is squeezed, large electrical changes in the fabric are easily measured.
“As a sensor, it’s very sensitive to forces ranging from touch to tons,” said Erik Thostenson, an associate professor in the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.
Thostenson said the films act much like a dye that adds electrical sensing functionality. The process developed in his lab creates a very uniform nanocomposite coating that is strongly bonded to the surface of the fiber. The process is industrially scalable for future applications.
Now, researchers can add these sensors to fabric in a way that Thostenson says is superior to current methods for making smart textiles. Existing techniques, such as plating fibers with metal or knitting fiber and metal strands together, can decrease the comfort and durability of fabrics, said Thostenson, who directs UD’s Multifunctional Composites Laboratory. The nanocomposite coating developed by Thostenson’s group is flexible and pleasant to the touch and has been tested on a range of natural and synthetic fibers, including Kevlar, wool, nylon, Spandex and polyester.
The coatings are just 250 to 750 nanometers thick — about 0.25 to 0.75 percent as thick as a piece of paper — and would only add about a gram of weight to a typical shoe or garment.
The materials used to make the sensor coating are also inexpensive and relatively eco-friendly.
One potential application of the sensor-coated fabric is to measure forces on people’s feet as they walk. This data could help clinicians assess imbalances after injury or help to prevent injury in athletes. Thostenson’s research group is collaborating with Jill Higginson, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab at UD, and her group as part of a pilot project funded by Delaware IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence. Their goal is to see how these sensors, when embedded in footwear, compare to biomechanical lab techniques such as instrumented treadmills and motion capture.
During lab testing, people know they are being watched, but outside the lab, their behavior may be different.
“One of our ideas is that we could utilize these novel textiles outside of a laboratory setting — walking down the street, at home, wherever,” said Thostenson.
Sagar Doshi, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at UD, is the lead author on the paper. He worked on making and testing the sensors and integrating them into sandals and shoes. He has worn the sensors in preliminary tests, and so far, the sensors collect data that compares with that collected by a force plate, a laboratory device that typically costs thousands of dollars.
“Because the low-cost sensor is thin and flexible the possibility exists to create custom footwear and other garments with integrated electronics to store data during their day-to-day lives,” Doshi said. “This data could be analyzed later by researchers or therapists to assess performance and ultimately bring down the cost of healthcare.”
The researchers say the technology could also be promising for sports medicine applications, post-surgical recovery, and for assessing movement disorders in pediatric populations.
Thostenson’s research group also uses nanotube-based sensors for other applications, such as monitoring infrastructure. Working with researchers in civil engineering his group has pioneered the development of flexible nanotube sensors to help detect cracks in bridges and other types of large-scale structures.
This work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Delaware IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence program with a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the state of Delaware.
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