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Clothes that know when you've been sleeping

CSIRO : 18 February, 2002  (Technical Article)
Car seats that wake up drowsy drivers, bed sheets that monitor your health, socks that let you know when you are about to do a tendon, vests that trigger an emergency beacon if you are dying of exposure, that's what an eclectic mix of researchers spent last Friday discussing as part of an Electronic Textiles workshop in Geelong.
The textile scientists, polymer chemists, physicists, and bioengineers from around the world met at CSIRO Textile and Fibre Technology not only to dream about the garments and textiles of the future, but also to talk about the technologies that will turn these dreams into reality. CSIRO hopes the meeting will lead to international collaborations.

'We are on the verge of a textiles revolution. Our clothes are set to become active participants in our lives and activities, warning us when we are becoming stressed or sick, actively protecting us from the weather,' says Barry Holcombe, a senior research scientist at CSIRO.

He talks of a future far beyond the 'wearable electronics' jackets with integrated mobile phones and music players, that are beginning to creep onto the market today.

'These garments are still reliant on conventional copper wire technology that changes the character and feel of clothes. We believe the future lies with truly electronic textiles - fabrics that contain electronic circuits but can be handled like traditional cloth, crumpled or ironed, thrown on the floor or into the washing machine,' says Dr Holcombe.

Until now, fabrics could only be made conductive by weaving in carbon or stainless steel fibres, or with special surface treatments. However, new plastics are now available that are natural conductors.

CSIRO researchers and their colleagues at the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute at the University of Wollongong are investigating ways that these plastics can be combined with traditional fibres to create fully functional fabrics and clothes.

'We are developing the core technologies for a new textiles industry,' IPRI Director Professor Gordon Wallace says. 'We've already developed an intelligent knee sleeve that 'tells' you if you have landed the wrong way, and it is envisaged that wearable biomonitors with direct feedbacks will find application in a range of sports training and rehabilitation fields.'

The workshop explored ways in which the new technologies might be applied. Some of the ideas raised included:

Smart materials with improved functionality including the ability to sense and react to external conditions (temperature and humidity), communications, light emission and shielding the wearer from radiation.
Garments that sense temperature and respond by generating heat or contracting to change their warmth or moisture management characteristics.
Electronic fabrics that protect against hazards posed by low-level electromagnetic radiation.
Electronic textiles that have potential for reducing noise generated by moving parts.
Garments that are softer, lighter thinner and more vapour permeable than conventional products providing better protection systems.
Body suits that monitor your physiological state and communicate to your doctor.
Although these applications may be years away, Dr Holcombe says that ultimately they will create new value-adding opportunities for textile products that will give the Australian textile industry a unique opportunity to corner an important future market.
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