Servo Magazine (May 2017)

Smart Fabrics

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  


If you’re a fan of sci-fi, you know that clothes make the hero. Take the body suits worn by the Fantastic Four. Depending on the wearer, the fabric can stretch beyond anything made of rubber, tolerate flame, turn invisible, and withstand crushing blows. Even the more realistic body hugging costumes worn by the Star Trek crew never wrinkle, never stain, and protect the wearer from almost any ambient temperature.

Although the suit and tie are not dead yet, there is progress in creating the fabrics worthy of super heroes, as well as ordinary folks. There are numerous advances being made by the academic community, such as the Drexel University smart fabric project (http://drexel.edu/now/archive/2014/May/Belly-Band). On the commercial front, there are a dozen or so suppliers of everyday garments made of hi-tech fabrics.

My latest discovery is Ministry of Supply (https://www.ministryof supply.com), started by MIT graduates with experience in fabrics used in space suits. Their 3D printed jackets and traditionally constructed shirts use a special phase change technology that absorbs heat when it’s hot and releases the heat when it’s cold.

The idea is that in the summer months, an office worker can avoid the discomfort caused by drastic temperature changes associated with running between the air conditioned office and outside. The fabric is also elastic enough to allow for a form fitted but still comfortable shirt.

I’m not a fan of their jackets or long-sleeve shirts for business wear, simply because they don’t offer tall or long sizes. I have, however, purchased a few shirts just to get my hands on the fabric. The thermal buffer provided by the fabric is only on the order of a degree or two. Still, I’m experimenting with using the material (which is manufactured in China) as a thermal buffer for onboard robotic control circuitry, as well as sensors embedded in clothing.

A couple degrees may not sound like a lot, but where thermal stability is a concern, two degrees can make a difference.

A potential advantage of a phase change fabric over a fan or Peltier effect thermoelectric cooling device is weight and power savings. The phase-change fabric is lightweight and there are no batteries to worry about. In many ways, this type of fabric can be the perfect substrate for a smart garment — it never needs ironing or dry cleaning, comes clean in cold water, and it dries on a hanger in minutes.

The only downsides to the fabric — at least in the form of finished garments from Ministry of Supply — are cost and fragility. The clothes remind me of the episode of the Jetsons in which George Jetson serves as the test subject for an “indestructible” jacket.

The jacket withstands almost anything that can be thrown at it, from flame throwers to explosives. However, when Jane Jetson throws the jacket in the wash, it comes out ruined. It’s the same with phase-change fabric. It can’t withstand hot water, dry cleaning, bleach, or simple ironing.

Even so, I’m happy with the fabric as the base for my smart clothes projects. If any of you are experimenting with smart fabrics, please consider sharing your experiences with other readers.  SV



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