UBC engineers are developing technology to turn rigid electronics into garments that move with you
Imagine going for a run in the sun while charging the iPad you’ve got folded up in your pocket through solar panels on your sleeves – the scenario is coming true sooner than you’d think. Scientists are developing wearable electronics – fabrics and garments with electronic sensors or solar panels built in for a variety of consumer and health care applications. Think Google Glass and smartwatches, but in the form of T-shirts and hoodies.
“Our skin stretches, and so do our clothes,” says Peyman Servati, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC. “Stretch is the key to developing wearable electronics. They need to be able to stretch and still function.”
Cut from a different cloth
To realize this big idea, Servati and Material Engineering Professor Frank Ko are starting small – nano small – by designing “e-textiles” out of fibres so tiny that you’d need hundreds of layers just to see them.
“Creating materials out of nanofibres makes them more flexible since the thinner a material is, the more malleable it becomes,” says Ko, Canada Research Chair in Advanced Fibrous Materials. “Using fibres this small also increases the surface area of the material, making it perfect for sensing technology as each fibre offers many contact points.
“Sensing becomes part of the structure, rather than something you add on,” says Ko, , whose earlier work includes a “skin” for aircrafts that could sense the environment and detect small cracks on the surface of the plane.
Now Ko and Servati are combining nanofibre technology with textiles, electronics, and other flexible materials that could drastically change the way we interact with electronics.
Click here to see pictures of Servati and Ko’s work.
Harnessing solar power
A typical solar cell involves many components that make it rigid and expensive to produce. The UBC team is working on a design that can generate and store electricity while embedded in fabrics.
For consumers, solar charging capacity would greatly increase the mobility of existing mobile devices like smartphones, laptops and tablets.
Sunlight is often available in areas where access to electricity is poor. Servati hopes that their work will help make electricity more accessible. It could be used in tents or other fabrics to charge electronic devices or warm food in remote areas.
“We use a lot of electricity so if we can convert sun to electricity and store it economically, we’re going to save a lot of resources,” says Servati.
As the trend of wearable electronics grows, the next step is to use e-textiles in health care.
Whether it is monitoring a mountain climber attempting a dangerous peak, or an elderly patient recovering from a heart attack, biosensing textiles could improve health care delivery and a patient’s lifestyle.
“A patient could wear a housecoat that relays real-time health information on muscle strain, heart rate, and other vital signs to a health care professional on the other side of the city, for example,” says Ko. “With telemedicine, this is possible.”
“Right now, the doctor depends on the patient to describe their tremors. It often takes lots of trial and error to figure out the right amount of medicine and treatment,” says Servati, whose team has embedded 70 sensors in a prototype shirt. Next, they will be working with emergency medicine and Parkinson’s disease researchers on a garment that can sense and record the severity of tremors.
“We started by asking the question – what can nature do? Birds can sense magnetic fields and navigate. We wanted to emulate nature. We began with aircraft wings and now we’re working on T-shirts,” says Ko.
The work of Servati, Ko and colleagues John Madden, Jane Wang and Victor Leung recently received more than $1 million in new funding from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)’s Stragetic Project Grant to develop flexible solar cells and wearable electronics.