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Wearable electronics bring computers in your clothes

Posted: 18 Apr 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Ohio State University  wearable  antenna  sensor  RFID 

Previously, the researchers had used silver-coated polymer thread with a 0.5mm diameter, each thread made up of 600 even finer filaments twisted together. The threads have a 0.1mm diameter, made with only seven filaments. Each filament is copper at the centre, enameled with pure silver.

They purchase the wire by the spool at a cost of three cents per foot; Kiourti estimated that embroidering a single broadband antenna like the one mentioned above consumes about 10ft of thread, for a material cost of around 30 cents per antenna. That's 24 times less expensive than when Volakis and Kiourti created similar antennas in 2014.

In part, the cost savings comes from using less thread per embroidery. The researchers previously had to stack the thicker thread in two layers, one on top of the other, to make the antenna carry a strong enough electrical signal. But by refining the technique that she and Volakis developed, Kiourti was able to create the high-precision antennas in only one embroidered layer of the finer thread. So now the process takes half the time: only about 15 minutes for the broadband antenna mentioned above.

She's also incorporated some techniques common to microelectronics manufacturing to add parts to embroidered antennas and circuits.

One prototype antenna looks like a spiral and can be embroidered into clothing to improve cell phone signal reception. Another prototype, a stretchable antenna with an integrated radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded in rubber, takes the applications for the technology beyond clothing. (The latter object was part of a study done for a tire manufacturer.)

John Volakis

Figure 3: Volakis: A revolution is happening in the textile industry.

Yet another circuit resembles the Ohio State Block 'O' logo, with non-conductive scarlet and gray thread embroidered among the silver wires "to demonstrate that e-textiles can be both decorative and functional," Kiourti said.

They may be decorative, but the embroidered antennas and circuits actually work. Tests showed that an embroidered spiral antenna measuring approximately six inches across transmitted signals at frequencies of 1GHz to 5GHz with near-perfect efficiency. The performance suggests that the spiral would be well-suited to broadband internet and cellular communication.

In other words, the shirt on your back could help boost the reception of the smart phone or tablet that you're holding, or send signals to your devices with health or athletic performance data.

The work fits well with Ohio State's role as a founding partner of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Institute, a national manufacturing resource centre for industry and government. The institute, which joins some 50 universities and industrial partners, was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter.

Syscom Advanced Materials in Columbus provided the threads used in Volakis and Kiourti's initial work. The finer threads used in this study were purchased from Swiss manufacturer Elektrisola. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation, and Ohio State will license the technology for further development.

Until then, Volakis is making out a shopping list for the next phase of the project.

"We want a bigger sewing machine," he said.

- Pam Frost Gorder
  Ohio State University


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