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«Smart» textiles to be the next interface between the real and the digital world

24 August 2020
Article by Cláudio Santos and Marta Martins, project managers at INEGI in the area of ​​composite materials. 

Textiles have been part of the daily life of human civilization for thousands of years, and the textile industry is one of the oldest in the world. And although many of the materials and processes still used today date back to these origins, there are countless innovations that have been changing and shaping the industry since the industrial revolution. 

The most recent and promising is the fusion between textiles and electronic technologies, which was born from the advent of new materials, nanotechnologies and miniaturized electrical systems. Thanks to these technologies it is possible to provide fabrics with "intelligence", which opens the way for the collection and transmission of useful information through wireless communications,. 

The textile sector is divided into two major segments: conventional textiles, for clothing, footwear, and the like, and technical textiles, with numerous applications in various industries, such as automobile, aviation, and civil construction. In both segments, the integration of new technologies allows manufacturers to give new properties to textiles, paving the way for new features, new products and new business opportunities. 

At this rate, smart textiles will soon become the next interface between the real and digital worlds, replacing and / or expanding the potential of other digital devices. 

Automotive industry stimulates innovation in the textile sector 

The so-called smart textiles are commonly made to guarantee the monitoring of the structures in which they are inserted, being able to detect anomalies or damages, thus increasing the safety of users. 

This can translate, for example, in the insertion of thermochromatic or phase-changing materials in textile structures, which are capable of responding to external stimuli in an electrical, thermal or chemical way. 

Furthermore, since smart textiles are in direct contact with the surface of a structure, they will be able to more accurately track different signals, as they allow a greater contact area, leading to a faster intervention in the face of sudden changes, which put at risk the comfort and safety of products and users. 

An example of this type of use is the prototype developed at INEGI that incorporates carbon nanomaterials in components of racing cars, to promote the formation of an electrically conductive network capable of detecting damage, in the form of mechanical stimuli, and releasing chemical agents, allowing the self-repair of the material. This advance is especially important as it will result in cars with greater strength and greater durability. 

The automotive industry is a sector where textiles have not only an aesthetic function, but also a relevant role in the performance and safety of vehicles, and thus it is an industry that drives innovation in the textile sector. 

Here, carbon fibers also stand out, known for the advantageous mechanical properties that characterize them, namely the high resistance to corrosion and low density. As such, they are used as polymer reinforcement in applications as diverse as components for aeronautics, space and, more recently, for the automotive sector. 

R&D initiatives drive vanguard of the textile sector 

Smart textiles have a wide field of potential applications, and are the subject of wide and multidisciplinary research and development activities

However, it should be noted that these textiles are still under development, so it is imperative to create guidelines for the integration of new features in these novel products, in order to safeguard the comfort and safety of the end user. 

In the context of this issue, it is worth highlighting the work carried out under the STILE project (Smart TextILEs in defense), promoted by the European Defense Agency (EDA), where INEGI has also contributed in the development of a roadmap with strategic guidelines for the creation of clothing with smart textiles, in particular in the defense sector

Innovation and creativity are undoubtedly one of the essential strategic pillars for the textile industry to become more competitive and increase its differentiating character. And this bet requires a strong collaboration between the industry and the technological centers, whose union can create new perspectives of innovation, conceive new technological solutions, and offer new products to consumers. 

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2 Chen, G. R., Li, Y. Z., Bick, M., & Chen, J. (2020). Smart Textiles for Electricity Generation. Chemical Reviews, 120(8), 3668-3720. doi:10.1021/acs.chemrev.9b00821 

3  Honarvar, M. G., & Latifi, M. (2017). Overview of wearable electronics and smart textiles. Journal of the Textile Institute, 108(4), 631-652. doi:10.1080/00405000.2016.1177870 

4 Fernandez-Carames, T. M., & Fraga-Lamas, P. (2018). Towards The Internet of Smart Clothing: A Review on IoT Wearables and Garments for Creating Intelligent Connected E-Textiles. Electronics, 7(12), 36. doi:10.3390/electronics7120405