Textiles with integrated electrical circuits, commonly referred to as smart fabrics, show a great deal of promise for applications such as clothing with embedded electronics. While previous approaches to producing the fabrics have involved weaving conductive materials into ordinary fibers, a new technique simply coats them with silver.

Developed at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, the process involves chemically bonding a 20 nanometer-thick layer of silver onto the individual fibers of conventional fabrics. Each fiber is fully encapsulated, while remaining flexible and stretchable. The silver coating reportedly adheres well to a wide variety of materials, and is highly conductive.

According to the scientists, smart fabrics that utilize the previously-mentioned “weaving in” technique tend to lack flexibility, and must be incorporated into the item of clothing from the start. By contrast, the silver bonding method leaves the material flexible, and can be applied to existing garments.

“The technique has many potential applications” says project leader Chris Hunt. “One particularly exciting area is wearable sensors and antennas which could be used for monitoring, for example checking on patients and vulnerable people; data capture and feedback for soldiers in the field; and performance monitoring in sports.”

Because silver in known for its antibacterial qualities, the technology could also make its way into items like wound dressings and long-lasting antibacterial wipes.

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