October 23, 2008 You don’t often hear fashion mentioned in the same sentence as cutting edge medical technology (unless you watch Grey’s Anatomy), but shirts that double as health monitors are just one type of garment under consideration in the emerging smart fabrics industry, a market that is estimated to be worth over €300 million, with a growth rate of roughly 20% per year.

Smart fabric is the blanket term given to any wearable material that incorporates electronics and we've already seen some exciting examples of what this technology has to offer, from material that can automatically alter how much it “breathes” based on internal and external temperatures to intelligent helicopter safety suits and clothing that uses a negatively charged electromagnetic field to improve the delivery of oxygen to the muscles through the bloodsteam. There's also some interesting consumer applications in the pipeline like Zegna Sport’s iJacket incorporates a bluetooth interface and mic in the collar and even a solar powered tie, but it’s the fields of healthcare and safety that is yielding the most promising projects.

To capitalize on the vast potential in this area, the EU has formed a research cluster known as SFIT, or Smart Textiles and Intelligent Fabrics, which brings together diverse smart fabric projects including Context, Proetex, Sweet, Stella, Ofseth, Biotex and Clevertex. Though the programs are focused on different applications, most have underlying objectives that include “connectivity, wearability and ensuring the fabric is accepted by users.”

The Context project uses a material imbued with capacitative sensors, which don’t require direct bodily contact, to measure muscle contraction – a possible indicator of RSI. The project is also investigating using the same principles to create a belt that monitors a baby’s heart rate.

The Proetex concept is an entire ensemble for fire fighters, including vest, jacket, belt and even boots under development by Diadora that incorporate an array of sensors designed keep the station informed about the location, breathing rate, cardiac rhythm and body temperature of fire fighters, as well as keeping the fire fighters themselves informed of external temperatures and the presence of toxic chemicals. The clothing also includes a light source, so the rescue workers can be more easily spotted in disaster zones.

The Sweet project and the Stella project are both developing stretchable electronics – a key enabling technology for making smart fabrics wearable. The Sweet project is also developing washable electronics - a key technology for making the wearers of smart fabrics tolerable.

The Ofseth project is investigating optical fibres, and their ability to act as a sensor. If optical fibres were incorporated into clothes, they could measure the oxygen content of blood, and monitor patients in MRI chambers.

The Biotex project involves a series of sensors designed to analyze body sweat. Ionic biosensors measure the odium, potassium, and chloride levels; pH sensors measure the acidity, circuits measure the conductivity, and an immunosensor measures the proteins. Together, these sensors can perform diagnostics on the wearer, as well as gathering data about how much energy the user exerts throughout the day.

“We formed the SFIT cluster because there are many European projects researching new types of smart fabric,” explains Jean Luprano, coordinator of the SFIT Cluster. “We wanted to share expertise and find a way to avoid reinventing the wheel. Often the work of one project could help another, even if they were not working on the same area.”

The potential is clearly enormous and we look forward to seeing some of the results in the field.

Kyle Sherer

Source: ICT Results.

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