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The World's First Electronic Fabric?

An international team of researchers may have come up with graphene you could wear.

Kristopher Sturgis

Exeter researchers have come up with electronic fiber.
Exeter researchers have come up with electronic fiber.

Transparent, flexible graphene electrodes can be embedded in fibers, potentially spurring a new generation of smart clothing that could put computing power on the body.

Developed by an international team of researchers, the material could pave the way towards the innovation of fabrics packed with computer technology, according to a statement from the University of Exeter. The team includes experts from the Center for Graphene Science at Exeter, as well as scientists from Portugal and Belgium.

The team noted that transparent and flexible electrodes are already widely used in plastics and glass, but the concept hasn't really been tapped for any kind of wearable fabric.

The breakthrough could potentially enable manufacturers could subtly weave GPS systems, biomedical monitoring, communication tools, and even personal security technologies into wearable fabrics.

The idea of transitioning from devices that attach to the body, to technologies actually woven into clothing is a trend gaining momentum. From athletes who long for fitness tracking fabrics, to patients who could benefit from wearable heart and glucose monitors, finding alternative ways to weave technology seamlessly into clothing continues to be an area of significant research.

But to date, most of the smart clothing is less than elegant, often featuring visible electronics bulging from fabric.

It didn't take long before the wonder-material graphene rose to the fore as a promising material to integrate electronics directly into the fibers themselves.

At just one atom thick, graphene is currently the thinnest substance capable of conducting electricity, and the challenge to convert and adapt the material for use in wearable electronic devices has been taken on by researchers around the world. This latest breakthrough has identified that 'monolayer graphene' contains exceptional electrical, mechanical, and optical properties, making it an excellent candidate for use as a transparent electrode for wearable electronics.

In their work, the team created graphene using chemical vapor deposition onto copper foil. The team then established a technique to transfer graphene from the copper foils to a polypropylene fiber that is commonly used in the textile industry.

The group also believes their discovery could be important when it comes to understanding how to best use graphene as a material in wearables. They believe the technique of preparing transparent and conductive textile fibers coated with graphene can serve as a building block for the integration of alternative electronic devices in textile fibers.

Learn more about electronics at MD&M East in New York City, June 9-11, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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