Cotton: The Fabric of Our (Electronic) Lives

Here’s a development that could point the way toward the integration of  textiles in electronic design: an international team of researchers have developed transistors made from cotton fibers that could allow sensor or processors to be incorporated directly into fibers and fabric. That’s right, it may soon be difficult to distinguish a design engineer from a fashion designer.

In order to make cotton conductive, the researchers coated the strands with gold nanoparticles, then added a thin layer of a conductive polymer called PEDOT. This increased conductivity approximately 1,000 times while leaving the fibers flexible.

If you think about how many fibers you have in your T-shirt, and how many interconnections you have between the weft and the warp of the fabric, you could get pretty decent computing power.
— Juan Hinestroza, director of the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory, Cornell.

Conductive cotton fibers complete a simple circuit. Image: Juan Hinestroza, Cornell.

You can read about the process in “Organic Electronics on Natural Cotton Fibres” in the December issue of the journal Organic Electronics. Contributors included researchers from Italy’s CNR Institute of Nanoscience, the University of Bologna, Unviesity of Cagliari, the Centre Microelectronique de Provence in France, and Cornell University’s Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory.

The researchers created an organic electrochemical transistor and an organic field-effect transistor using the fibers. Possible applications include sensors woven directly into garments (like firefighters’ uniforms), or into carpets or upholstery to monitor humidity levels or allergens.

Last year, one of Hinestroza’s students, Abbey Liebman, even designed a dress that uses flexible solar cells and conductive yarns to power small electronics via a USB charger in the waistband. You can see an image here.

Source: IEEE Spectrum

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