A group of scientists claims to have created a new material that is as soft as cotton, as strong as Kevlar, and as conductive as many metals. It can be worn and washed like regular clothing, and it has the potential to transform athletic apparel into smart “wearables” in the future.
The “carbon nanotube threads” function similarly to the wires in an electrocardiogram (EKG) monitoring device, which detects heart conditions by measuring heart rhythms. According to a new study from researchers at Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering, instead of having to be patched onto the skin, they can be sewn into a t-shirt and worn like regular athletic wear.
They also claim that, unlike wires, the threads can move with the wearer and can be washed, stretched, and worn repeatedly without breaking down.
Though it’s still a ways off from being mass-produced for consumers, the material could eventually be used to replace bulky EKG Holter monitors in medical settings, as well as heart-rate monitoring watches and chest straps for athletes.
“Another interesting application of this technology is that we can use them for next-generation military uniforms,” Lauren Taylor, a Rice University graduate student and lead author of the study, said in a video about the product. “Not only are we able to use this material for EKG electrodes, we’re also able to use them as antennas so that we can track the location of military personnel.”
According to Gartner, worldwide spending on wearable devices is expected to grow 18 percent to $81.5 billion in 2021, and another 15 percent in 2022. Many tech companies have invested in developing similar capabilities into devices — Apple (AAPL) Watch added heart-rate monitoring and other medical features in 2018, and Google (GOOGL GOOGLE) announced plans to buy FitBit in 2019, which was completed earlier this year.
Rice University researchers have developed carbon nanotube threads that can be sewed into regular athletic clothing and used to monitor the wearer’s heart rhythms.
Carbon nanotube fiber was first developed by a Rice University lab in 2013, and it has since been studied for use in medical procedures such as cochlear implants for hearing loss and heart repair. The original filaments (approximately 22 microns wide) were too thin to be used by a standard sewing machine at the time.
Researchers collaborated with a rope maker to weave the filaments together into a material that could be sewn into athletic apparel, similar to regular sewing thread. According to the study, the resulting “smart” shirt has “soft, wearable, dry sensors for noninvasive and continuous” electrocardiogram monitoring.