We live in an era of smart phones, smart watches, and smart gadgets today. E-textiles are the latest addition to the world's list of smart products, resulting from a fusion between textiles and electronics.
E-textiles are not an entirely novel concept, they've been around for a while - think of heated blanket for instance. Over the past few decades, research in this direction has intensified, opening up a range of possibilities.
Combined with electronic components, these textiles can assess changes in their environment and respond by generating light, sound, or radio waves. Remember all the superhero costumes from The Incredibles? There's a chance they'll seize to be fictional in the future.
Electronic textiles or e-textiles are not to be confused with smart textiles. Smart textiles are fabrics that have been formulated using new technologies to provide added value to the users. Textiles that are UV ray resistant or water resistant are some examples of smart textiles.
Smart textiles can serve two purposes: aesthetic appeal and performance enhancement. Now the interesting part is that smart fabrics can be combined with electronics to create smart e-textiles. Smart fabrics can pile up energy from the environment by harnessing vibrations, sound, or heat. This feature can be used to induce color changing or light generating properties, by embedding the fabric with electronics that can power such responses.
Performance enhancing smart textiles can be used in athletics, extreme sports, and military applications. These include fabrics designed to modulate body temperature, trim wind resistance, and control muscle vibration – all of which improves athletic performance.
Smart textiles can be made from cotton, polyester, and nylon. Electrically conductive fabrics can be developed through the deposition of metal nanoparticles around the woven fibers.
The resulting fabrics are conductive, hydrophilic, and have high electroactive surface areas, properties which make them ideal substrates for electrochemical bio-sensing.
Healthcare and beauty industries have been reaping the benefits of these innovations for years, as can be noted from the use of drug-releasing medical textiles and fabrics with moisturizer, perfume, and anti-aging properties.
The production of electronic textile fibers require the use of conducting and semiconducting materials. There are a number of commercial fibers today that mix metallic fibers with textile fibers to form conducting fibers, which can be woven or sewn into garments.
This is an incredible feat since metals and classical semiconductors are both stiff materials, which are not very suitable for textile fiber applications because fibers are subjected to much stretch and bending during use.
E-textiles are the future of fashion. They can be useful in multiple ways, like in monitoring vital stats such as heart rate, pulse, respiration, temperature, and blood pressure.
They can also be used by the military forces to track the position and status of soldiers in action. They can find application in bulletproof Kevlar vests such that if the wearer is shot, the material would sense the bullet's impact, and send a radio message back to base. Likewise, they can be used by pilots and truck drivers to monitor fatigue.
Like many high-tech products, e-textiles may evolve and become mass market commodities in the future. The opportunities, however, will not come without challenges. Recycling old e-textiles can be a complicated task because valuable materials are distributed in large quantities within heterogeneous textile waste.
Furthermore, the electronic components of e-textiles can act as contaminants while recycling the textile materials. It is necessary for manufacturers to implement waste preventative measures at the early phases of development of this emerging technology, so as to avoid adverse impacts of e-textiles on the environment.