Electronic textiles are increasingly becoming an important category of wearable technology. While a fitness tracker like a FitBit smartwatch can keep track of your heart rate and steps, electronic textiles have the potential for much more. Imagine a smart shirt that could monitor your respiration, perspiration, heart rate, and even the positions of your arms. That smart shirt could act as an input device for controlling a computer in addition to collecting information about your physical activity. Progress has made in that direction, but it requires retooling entire textile factories. PolySense can make existing textile conductive in order to add electronic functionality.
PolySense was developed by an international team of scientists with the goal of creating electronic textiles without having to reinvent the entire manufacturing process. Most of the e-textile technology that we’ve featured in the past has to be woven into the fabric itself. Conductive threads, for example, can be sewn into a garment. But that’s not the sort of process that can be easily implemented in existing factories. The apparel market is incredibly competitive, and most manufacturing is done overseas at the lowest possible costs in order to increase profit margins. That’s often done with expensive industrial machines that are designed for traditional manufacturing and aren’t easy to retrofit or replace.
This work negates the need for that by making textiles conductive after they have already been manufactured. An apparel company could purchase t-shirts overseas in bulk, and then use the PolySense process to add electronic functionality to them. This is done by treating the clothing with a sequence of chemicals, referred to as “in-situ polymerization,” and can be achieved without any specialized equipment. Conductivity can be added selectively with stencils in order to create textiles that sense pressure, motion, and motion — the same capabilities we see in most other piezo-resistive e-textiles. Any kind of arbitrary pattern can be applied to most types of fabric, making PolySense suitable for a range of wearable e-textile applications. While there is little doubt that e-textiles will soon be manufactured from the get-go, PolySense can ease the transition and financial burden of introducing them.