A honeycomb lattice made of carbon, graphene is not the flashiest of materials. But this flexible, extremely strong, and virtually transparent substance has a hidden power: At one atom thick, it is the thinnest material known that is capable of conducting electricity. A consortium of European academics have leveraged this property, discovering a way to coat fabric fibers with graphene to create, in their words, “the world’s first truly electronic textile.”
The discovery, which comprises growing graphene onto copper foil and then transferring it onto fibers commonly used in the textile industry, paves the way for integrating transportable electronic devices into everyday fabrics. So that dream of imbuing a T-shirt with GPS capabilities, having a hoodie double as a phone, or even creating upholstery that plays music files? This washable wiring makes those possibilities one large step closer.
“The other wearable products currently available require attaching small electronic equipment onto clothes, and then using conductive textiles with metal wires embedded in the fabrics to conduct the charge,” explains research co-author Monica Craciun, an associate professor at the Centre for Graphene Science at the U.K.’s University of Exeter. This new graphene textile requires neither, as it potentially “could have nano electronic devices built right on top of it,” she says.
Craciun conducted the research, which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, in conjunction with the Belgian Textile Research Centre (CenTexBel); the Institute for Systems Engineering and Computers, Microsystems and Nanotechnology (INESC-MN) in Lisbon (Portugal); and the Universities of Lisbon and Aveiro in Portugal.
She sees transistors and light-emitting devices as the first electronics to be incorporated into the textile. “For instance, simple information display on clothes, perhaps ones that could change color at sports and social events.” More complex medical and service uses that integrate screens and communication technologies are possible but a little further out.
Dr. Andrew Dent, Vice President, Library and Materials Research, of textile consultancy Material ConneXion, echoes how game-changing the graphene textile is. But he’s excited about its fashion possibilities, specifically for sportswear. “What particularly interests me is the potential to create conductive yarns that can also maintain all the properties of a performance fiber,” he says. “One that is lightweight, has a good hand and drape, and offers functionalities such as wicking and thermal management.”
Craciun and the textile’s consortium of developers are open to working with industrial partners to commercialize the technology. Further advances in battery technologies, including flexible fabric options, will further speed the textile’s adoption.
In the meantime, Craciun and the team will concentrate on developing wearable electronic and optoelectronic devices that use the graphene textile as wiring. “From textile GPS systems and biomedical monitoring to personal security and communication tools for the sensory impaired, the possibilities for the textile’s use are endless,” she says. “They really only are limited by our imaginations.”