Smart Textiles

Introducing the latest in textiles: Soft hardware

By David L. Chandler, MIT News Office1

The latest development in textiles and fibres is a kind of soft hardware that you can wear: cloth that has electronic devices built right into it. Researchers at MIT have now embedded high-speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and diode photodetectors, within fibres that were then woven at Inman Mills, in South Carolina, into soft, washable fabrics and made into communication systems. This marks the achievement of a long-sought goal of creating «smart» fabrics by incorporating semiconductor devices — the key ingredient of modern electronics — which until now was the missing piece for making fabrics with sophisticated functionality.

This discovery, the researchers say, could unleash a new «Moore’s Law» for fibres — in other words, a rapid progression in which the capabilities of fibres would grow rapidly and exponentially over time, just as the capabilities of microchips have grown over decades. The findings are described in the journal Nature in a paper by former MIT graduate student Michael Rein; his research advisor Yoel Fink, MIT professor of materials science and electrical engineering and CEO of AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America); along with a team from MIT, AFFOA, Inman Mills, EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Lincoln Laboratory.

Optical fibres have been traditionally produced by making a cylindrical object called a «preform,» which is essentially a scaled-up model of the fibre, then heating it. Softened material is then drawn or pulled downward under tension and the resulting fibre is collected on a spool.

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