Could smart threads save lives?

17 December 2008

Scientists have created the world's first soft electronic cloth. This 'smart fabric' could save lives - it can tell if the wearer is injured. Antenna tries the new fabric on for size...

The power for this light does not come through wires but tiny cotton threads.

Image: University of Michigan

Clothes that conduct electricity are nothing new. But until now 'smart fabrics' contained heavy, metal wires making them uncomfortable and impractical. Thanks to a team of US and Chinese scientists, bulky 'smart fabrics' could be a thing of the past.

This previous 'electronic fabric' dress will make you stand out, but it doesn't look very practical.

Image: SSPL

So how do scientists create clothes that conduct electricity without hidden wires?
Scientists coated cotton thread with tiny tubes of carbon molecules, known as nanotubes, then wove the thread into cloth. Carbon nanotubes are great at conducting electricity and they are really tiny, so the cloth keeps its original properties - it's light and flexible.

The thread coated in nanotubes is very thin and flexible.

Image: University of Michigan

But if that wasn't clever enough the team used the new electrical properties of their cloth to help detect the presence of blood on the fabric.

How did they do that?

Firstly, they created molecules called antibodies, which have unique properties. They will only join together with one kind of protein - it's like a lock and key. The antibodies that the scientists produced will only attach to albumin, a human protein found in the blood.

Human blood contains a protein called albumin.

Image: Photodisc

'We placed the antibodies between the carbon nanotubes. When blood touches the fabric antibodies bind with the albumin in the blood. The antibodies leave the fabric, which allows more electricity to flow through the nanotubes, as there are fewer molecules in the way,' Nicholas Kotov, nanotube expert, explains.

Cow blood won't react with the fabric because cow albumin is different to the human protein.

Image: Wiki Commons

'An increase in electricity flow across the fabric means that there must be blood on the fabric. It would be simple to take the design one step further and attach a buzzer to the fabric that sounds when the flow of electricity increases,' says Kotov.

Nicholas Kotov, nanotube expert, University of Michigan.

Image: University of Michigan.

What do other experts think?
'This really is a fantastic discovery - it is so simple and elegant. I don't see why clothes that sense if you're injured couldn't be made out of this fabric. The applications are endless,' says Juan Hinestroza, materials expert.

Juan Hinestroza, materials expert, Cornell University.

Image: Cornell University

What's the next step?
Kotov and his team think their fabric could benefit soldiers who are wounded in battle and unable to call for help. It could also be useful in hospitals to alert nurses if a patient's wound starts bleeding under a dressing.

Could your jumper dial 999 if you became injured?

Image: Wiki Commons