Researchers Exploit Fiber Manufacturing to Weave Large Smart Textile Display

February 17, 2022 by Abdulwaliy Oyekunle

In an attempt to bring e-textiles to smart homes, researchers at the University of Cambridge have fabricated a 46-inch textile display by weaving active electronics into a fiber.

Last week, researchers at the University of Cambridge announced that they have developed a novel high luminance RGB color smart textile display. The project was partially funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).


Smart textile display system

The smart textile display system maintains performance under folding, bending, and rolling conditions. Image used courtesy of the University of Cambridge

A smart textile system is generally made up of conductive polymers, sensors, actuators, and electronic controlling units. These components are meticulously integrated together to create a system that processes and reacts to inputs from thermal, mechanical, and electrical sources.

Smart textiles have found useful applications in a wide range of sectors including health, sports, entertainment, military, and so on. How is the research at the University of Cambridge driving the needle in e-textile fabrication, specifically for the smart home?


What Makes Textiles Smart?

Scalability and durability are two factors that researchers consider when fabricating a smart textile product. They must carefully select the type of materials and fibers that could best serve the functionality of the device.


Break down of the smart textile system

Break down of the smart textile system. Image used courtesy of Nature

Conductive organic polymers are one of the materials employed in smart textiles. These materials boast high flexibility, elasticity, and resilience. In addition, the conductivity of these materials can be increased by adding conductive inks. Furthermore, when nanoparticles are integrated into fabrics, they enhance their properties and improve performance.

Another suitable material that can be woven into fabrics is optic fiber. Optic fiber facilitates embedded functionality and is particularly useful for light data transmission for IoT applications.

Adopting chromic materials could allow a smart fabric to change its color when exposed to external stimuli. While a photochromic material can change the fabric’s color when sensing light, a thermochromic material can change the fabric’s color when reacting to heat.

Typical sensors in a smart textile system

Typical sensors in a smart textile system include photodetectors and biosensors. Image used courtesy of Nature


Apart from the aforementioned conductive materials employed in making smart textile products, active electronic devices including sensors and actuators are also important components that are integrated into fabrics. Radio-frequency (RF) antennas, photodetectors, temperature sensors, and LEDs are also common components in these devices. 


Fiber Devices Take Center Stage in 46-inch Smart Textile System

The most recent development in smart textiles comes from the University of Cambridge. Researchers incorporated fiber devices (F-devices) to transmit signals to the smart textile fiber display (F-LED) system. Highly conductive fibers were used to connect the F-devices. The researchers assert that this 46-inch smart textile system may find applications in the smart home industry.

The research integrated six input fiber devices into textile using both symmetric and asymmetric weaving patterns to achieve multiple functionalities including touch sensing, wireless power transmission, and environmental monitoring.

These F-devices include:

  • F-radio frequency
  • F-photodetector
  • F-touch sensor
  • F-temperature sensor
  • F-biosensor module
  • F-energy storage


Monitoring environmental conditions and cardiac activity

Monitoring environmental conditions and cardiac activity are typical applications of the smart textile system. Image used courtesy of Nature


While the F-biosensor module and the F-temperature sensor could detect real-time heartbeat and ambient temperature respectively, the RF-energy storage can be adopted as a switch between the main power supply and the F-LED display. Signals processed by the input F-devices are visualized on the F-LED display.

Professor Jong Min Kim, a lead researcher of the study, noted that shrinking smart textile systems is a valuable first step in unlocking e-fibers and e-textiles in everyday consumer applications.


The Next Step for Fiber-based E-Textiles

The researchers made this embedded technology compatible with weaving by coating each fiber component with stretchy materials, braiding the fiber-based components for durability, and connecting these components together with both laser welding and conductive adhesives. 

According to Cambridge's press release, this study represents a first attempt at integrating such a large complex sensor system into textiles using a wholly fiber-based manufacturing method.

Moving forward, the research team, along with its European collaborators, are now testing other sustainable materials to create more e-textile systems for everyday items. This fabric could eventually find use in solar panels, supercapacitors, and batteries, for instance. The researchers even mused how their smart textile may one day enable energy-harvesting carpets, curtains that act as TVs, and self-powered clothing.