The clothes you wear have historically served as the boundary between your body and the external world, keeping you comfortable and safe.
But what if your clothes could also tell you when your health is in danger – or alert a doctor? Textile-inspired devices are poised to become one of the next evolutions of truly wearable electronics that will provide a new dimension to managing your personal wellness.
Because of their closeness to our bodies, textiles have the potential to transfer information and energy from our bodies to the outside world. My team at N.C. State studies ways to design electronic devices into clothing in economical ways, through research funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation (in an NSF-funded engineering research center led by N.C. State called ASSIST), the National Institute of Health and N.C. State’s Nonwovens Institute (an industry consortium).
Most recently, we developed ‘iron-on’ electronics for garments – a do-it-yourself customization of electronics. We build electronic blocks on clothing by ironing them together to connect sensors, and route the information the blocks are gathering to a central location. For example, our team has demonstrated an electrocardiogram shirt that monitors the heart’s performance and sends the data wirelessly to a smartphone. Research collaborators in ASSIST are engineering new types of sensors that provide more information on your health (stress, hydration) and environment (air quality).
What’s next? Harvesting energy from your body to make these devices battery-free. On average, approximately 10 watts of power is available from your body’s heat and everyday motion. Collected, this is more than enough to power medical devices. Our research is mapping the human energy grid so we can engineer a textile to efficiently transfer power from your body to devices in the garment.
An important aspect of my research is K-12 STEM education. In the past three years, 45 Raleigh area middle- and high-school science, technology, engineering and math teachers have spent five weeks of their summers in my teaching lab through an NSF Research Experience for Teachers program. Here, teachers prototype wearable electronics. For example, one teacher team built a health monitor for a search-and-rescue dog. Teachers then use their lessons in their own classrooms, teaching student teams to build their own wearable device. The goal is to foster creativity for future N.C. State researchers.
Jesse Jur is an assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at N.C. State.