What’s next for wearable technologies?
Research 30th October 2017
In recent years millions of people have adopted the use of wearable technologies. Devices that monitor everything from heart rate, eating habits and activity levels to weight and sleeping patterns have now become the norm in our daily lives.
This now begs the question what is next in terms of wearable technology? The apparel industry has estimated that annual sales of apparel products is worth $3 trillion with over 50 billion units and 20% of all apparel will be integrated with electronics by 2020. Therefore e-textiles are considered a key opportunity for future growth of wearable devices.
Graphene, the world’s first two-dimensional material is one million times thinner than a human hair, flexible, transparent and more conductive than copper, making it an ideal material for wearable technology, with the potential to create the next generation of devices currently limited to science fiction.
The main challenge for wearables is to create products that not only work but also are comfortable and don’t inhibit performance.
In order to combat this, the key trend in the e-textiles market is moving away from stitched electronics to fully integrating the technology into the actual garment by using inkjet printing methods.
However, this comes with its challenges. Textiles are among the most difficult substrates not only to print on but also to achieve electrically conductive features due to their rough, porous and uneven surface. The current methods used are also expensive, environmentally unfriendly and not biocompatible.
Researchers from The University of Manchester, led by Dr Nazmul Karim at the National Graphene Institute have demonstrated the first all inkjet-printed graphene e-textiles. This will enable the printing of flexible, comfortable and potentially more environmental friendly graphene wearable sensors on a garment by using simple inkjet printing technique.
In this instance the team have been able to demonstrate the printing of graphene sensors directly onto the fabric which can measure your heart rate and potentially temperature, activity and sleeping patterns all in real time. This leads for potential uses in sportswear, medical and defence applications.
Being able to re-engineer the surface of the textile allows for more precise printing using lower temperatures and without damaging heat sensitive fabrics.
But the future of graphene in e-textiles doesn’t stop at sensors. Previous research published by Dr Karim, has shown the potential of printing flexible battery-like devices directly onto textiles without the need for bulky battery packs.
Further research and development would even enable printing of tiny micro energy storage devices on a flexible garment that can power next generation wearable devices.
One of the fundamental challenges not only for the e-textile industry but also the electronics industry is the further miniaturisation of electronic devices. Making products that are lighter, smaller but without compromising on performance.
Graphene and the wider 2D materials family have the potential to provide solutions to these problems. Allowing us to building tailor-made materials to meet a specific purpose, with the ability to potentially reinvent the wearables technology industry as we know it.
The article: All Inkjet-printed Graphene-based Conductive Pattern for Wearable E-textiles Application (DOI: 10.1039/C7TC03669H) can be found here.