College of Engineering News Room

Fashioning Wearable Technology by Spinning Nanofibers

By Brad Stager

The ability to turn raw materials like cotton or wool into usable fabrics received a boost when power looms replaced spinning wheels and the textile industry could produce rolls of carpeting and racks of fashionwear on a massive scale.

But spinning nanofibers to be woven into the fabric of smart textiles requires developing new processes that emphasize miniaturization and flexibility. A National Science Foundation Advanced Materials program award will help researchers at the College of Engineering develop methods of integrating electronic circuitry into fabrics that will help meet the needs of a growing demand for wearable technology.

Investigators for the award are Associate Professor Arash Takshi and Associate Professor Sylvia Thomas of the Department of Electrical Engineering. Besides expanding knowledge relating to wearable technology, the two researchers also share interests in alternative and renewable energy sources, novel materials and bio-applications of electrical engineering.

The current inventory of wearable technology consists mostly of rigid components such as fitness trackers that are worn by people, or sensors attached to clothing such as the technology that is built into spacewear for astronauts to monitor and support life functions or provide exoskeletal robotic capabilities. There are even illuminating LED hoodies available for fashionable techwear.

According to Takshi, developing methods that will integrate circuitry into textiles can provide benefits in a variety of applications, such as creating patient garments that can collect and transmit data to healthcare providers. An example used in the award application suggests the possible development of a smart bra with e-textile circuitry to monitor cancer patients.

“The focus of the proposal is mainly on the technique of fabrication,” he said. “Medical applications are a hot market for wearable electronics.”

The process that Takshi and Thomas are developing involves a two-step fabrication method that uses direct-write electrospinning of conductive polymers into nanofibers which are used to generate circuit templates on fabrics. Copper electroplating follows to metalize the nanofibers and integrate them into fabric with a controller station to produce the desired circuit patterns. According to Thomas, tasks like working out the X and Y coordinates of the circuitry is a good way to involve students in the research.

wearable tech diagram

“Our students are going to help us write some control language for the controller, so we’re training future engineers and preparing them for their professional careers,” she said.

Thomas added that the goal is to apply the research with a variety of materials to find optimal solutions to the problems inherent in creating wearable technology.

“If we can miniaturize the device circuitry and make it adherable to surfaces, we can diversify applications,” she said. “It’s just the beginning of where we can take this technology.”

The nature of research and development of wearable technology lends itself to collaboration, and Takshi said there is space in their research to consider the knowledge and perspectives people from other disciplines have to offer.

“Working on this technology, we have some opportunity to put more forces to work for collaboration,” he said. “For other faculty members whose research might have some sort of overlap with this work, we’d be happy to expand to bring them in.”

Takshi adds that as he and Thomas build their team, they are also looking for projects or problems that companies may have that could be a good fit for the research they are conducting.

The NSF Advanced Materials program award for wearable technology research provides $369,574 to funded work until the beginning of 2023.