International team led by UK’s University of Cambridge develops cost-effective smart textiles

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have led an international team that has developed next-generation smart textiles using industrial looms. The team found that incorporating electronic, optoelectronic, sensing, and energy fibre components on industrial looms used to make conventional textiles is more sustainable and cost-effective than using specialised microelectronic fabrication facilities that produce large volumes of waste.

The smart textiles, which can be produced inexpensively, in any shape or size, using the same machines used to make everyday clothing, can be a viable substitute for bulky electronics in various industries such as automotive and fashion. However, the functionality, dimensions, and shapes of smart textiles have been limited by current manufacturing processes.

To overcome this limitation, last year, the same researchers coated the fibres used in smart textiles with materials that can withstand stretching, enabling compatibility with conventional weaving processes. The team then used automated processes to create smart textiles of any size or shape that consist of various types of fibre devices, such as energy storage devices, light-emitting diodes, and transistors, incorporated into conventional fibres (whether synthetic or natural) through automated weaving.

An automated laser welding technique, aided by electrically conductive adhesive, is used to interconnect the fibre devices, and the encapsulation approach was designed to account for the fibre devices’ performance. The resulting smart textiles were capable of withstanding the stretching of an industrial weaving machine.

Through collaboration with textile manufacturers, the team successfully created test patches of smart textiles measuring approximately 50×50 centimetres. The production of these textiles can be scaled up to larger dimensions and mass-produced, making it feasible to manufacture large and flexible displays and monitors on industrial looms, resulting in a significant reduction in production costs.

Dr Sanghyo Lee from Cambridge’s department of engineering said, “manufacturing smart textiles in specialised microelectronics facilities requires billions of pounds of investment, and manufacturing smart textiles in this way is highly limited.” Dr Luigi Occhipinti, also from the department of engineering, added that the flexibility of the approach is amazing, and their unique approach enables the deployment of sustainable and eco-friendly electronics manufacturing platforms that contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions and enable real applications of smart textiles in buildings, car interiors, and clothing.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Science Advances, and partial financial backing for the research was provided by both the European Union and UK Research and Innovation.


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