The technique could be the next step in the development of wearable electronic devices, bringing ubiquitous computing – the ideal of information technologies so easy to interact with, they fade into the background - closer. Instead of lugging around multiple devices in hard plastic casings such as smart keys, contactless payment systems and smart phones, their functionalities are integrated into clothing. The novel base material would no doubt give rise to new functionalities like biomedical monitoring as well.
'We are surrounded by fabrics, the carpet floors in our homes or offices, the seats in our cars, and obviously all our garments and clothing accessories. The incorporation of electronic devices on fabrics would certainly be a game-changer in modern technology', said Dr Ana Neves, Associate Research Fellow in professor Craciun’s team.
'All electronic devices need wiring, so the first issue to be address in this strategy is the development of conducting textile fibers while keeping the same aspect, comfort and lightness. The methodology that we have developed to prepare transparent and conductive textile fibers by coating them with graphene will now open way to the integration of electronic devices on these textile fibers.'
Graphene is a strong, conductive, flexible, almost transparent material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms. The science team synthesized monolayer graphene on copper foil using a method called chemical vapor deposition. They then transferred the graphene to polypropylene fibers. Polypropylene is used in the textile manufacturing industry and processed in garments such as outdoor clothing and sports wear.
Much research has gone into wearable electronics and scientists have explored different solutions to produce conducting transparent materials to use as wiring. The reason the international team is claiming to be the first to succeed, is that all previous approaches have drawbacks. Carbon nanotube-graphene hybrid fibers, for instance, are flexible and conductive but the high temperatures required for production makes them unsuitable for textiles. In their paper, published in the Open Access journal Scientific Reports, the team writes that none of the previously explored methods result 'in the required transparency to fabricate completely built-in and concealed textile devices'.
The research team included scientists from the Centre for Graphene Science at the University of Exeter, the Institute for Systems Engineering and Computers, Microsystems and Nanotechnology (INESC-MN) in Lisbon, the Universities of Lisbon and Aveiro in Portugal and the Belgian Textile Research Centre (CenTexBel).
Image by Keoni Cabral CC-BY 2.0