Rice University researchers were able to create flexible carbon nanotube fibers that can be incorporated into clothing to function as portable health monitors. The new yarn is very conductive, but is washable and durable, allowing it to function as a discreet component of clothing. So far, researchers have incorporated the fibers into a sports shirt that allows you to monitor your heart rate and get a continuous electrocardiogram. The technology could act as a replacement for awkward or impractical portable equipment, such as chest straps.
Portable products promise discreet health control, but how discreet is the chest strap? This latest research promises stylish clothing, which can monitor your health discreetly while wearing it. The technology is based on highly conductive carbon nanotubes that have been woven to form a durable, machine-washable, flexible yarn, allowing for long-term incorporation into fabrics.
The new thread is sturdy and flexible enough to be sewn by hand on the fabric, allowing researchers to place it wherever they want, including where it makes maximum contact with the skin or in an area of interest, such as chest for heart control. The Rice University team incorporates the threads using zig-zag shapes to allow the material to stretch without breaking, as the fabric flexes and stretches during the activity.
“The shirt should fit snugly against the chest,” Lauren Taylor, a researcher involved in the study, said in an ad for Rice. “In future studies, we will focus on using denser patches of carbon nanotube wires so that there is more surface area to contact the skin.”
In addition to functioning as sensors that obtain data from the wearer’s skin, the fibers act as electrodes that can be connected to a device, such as a Bluetooth transmitter, allowing wireless data to be transferred to a smartphone.
The nanotubes themselves are tiny, have a diameter of 22 microns, and therefore the researchers had to develop specialized equipment to group them into a robust wire. “We worked with someone who sells small machines designed to make ropes for boat models,” Taylor said. “It was able to turn us into a mid-scale device that does the same thing.”
Rice researchers hope the yarns could be useful in a wide range of portable products. “We see that, after two decades of development in labs around the world, this material works in more and more applications,” said Matteo Pasquali, another of the developers of the new thread. “Due to the combination of conductivity, good skin contact, biocompatibility and softness, carbon nanotube wires are a natural component for wearable equipment.”
Watch a video on the technology below.