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Astonishing new smart textile display with electronic, energy and photonic functions created by University of Cambridge researchers





Could curtains of the future also act as TVs? Could our carpets harvest energy? And will our clothes and fabrics feature offer self-powered interactivity?

These sound like science fiction notions, but a team led by University of Cambridge researchers have taken a big step towards them by creating a fully woven smart textile display that integrates active electronic, energy and photonic functions.

The 46-inch display features smart sensors, energy harvesting and storage in its fabric, embedded directly in the fibres and yarns.

University of Cambridge researchers have created a 46-inch woven display with smart sensors, energy harvesting and storage integrated directly into the fabric. Picture: University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge researchers have created a 46-inch woven display with smart sensors, energy harvesting and storage integrated directly into the fabric. Picture: University of Cambridge

It is the first time a scalable large-area complex system has been integrated into textiles using an entirely fibre-based manufacturing approach and its creators say it could lead to a “whole new class of smart devices and systems”.

“Our approach is built on the convergence of micro and nanotechnology, advanced displays, sensors, energy and technical textile manufacturing,” said Prof Jong min Kim, from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who co-led the research with Dr Luigi Occhipinti and Prof Manish Chhowalla. “This is a step towards the full exploitation of sustainable, convenient e-fibres and e-textiles in daily applications. And it’s only the beginning.”

The fabric they have created can operate as a display, monitor inputs or store energy for later use. It can detect radio frequency signals, touch, light and temperature.

It can also be rolled up, and since it is made using commercial textile manufacturing techniques, large rolls of functional fabric could be made this way.

To date, manufacturing processes have limited the functionality, dimensions and shapes achieved in the development of smart textiles.

By integrating specialised fibres into textiles through conventional weaving or knitting processes, they could be incorporated into everyday objects to unleash a host of potential applications.

So far, though, there have been size limitations on the manufacturing of such fibres, while the technology has not been compatible with textiles and the weaving process.

To get around these challenges, the research team coated each fibre component with materials that can withstand enough stretching so they can be used on textile manufacturing equipment, in order to make the technology compatible with weaving.

They braided some of the fibre-based components to improve their reliability and durability. And then they connected multiple fibre components together using conductive adhesives and laser-welding techniques.

This combined approach enabled them to incorporate multiple functionalities into a large piece of woven fabric with standard, scalable textile manufacturing processes.

Dr Occhipinti, also from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, said: “By integrating fibre-based electronics, photonic, sensing and energy functionalities, we can achieve a whole new class of smart devices and systems.

“By unleashing the full potential of textile manufacturing, we could soon see smart and energy-autonomous Internet of Things devices that are seamlessly integrated into everyday objects and many other sector applications.”

The prototype display is a major step towards next-generation e-textile applications in sectors such as the Internet of Things (IoT), or smart and energy-efficient buildings that can generate and store their own energy. Distributed sensor networks could also be created using the techniques, along with interactive displays that are flexible and wearable when integrated with fabrics.

The researchers are now working with European collaborators to make the technology sustainable and usable for everyday objects.

They want to use sustainable materials for the fibre components, creating a class of new ‘energy textile systems’.

Eventually, the work could even lead to flexible, smart fabric that could be deployed in batteries, supercapacitors, solar panels and other devices.

The research, published in Nature Communications, was funded in part by the European Commission and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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