Coming Soon to Your Closet: Clever Clothes

The garments on our backs could do much more than protect us from the cold in the future. They could monitor our health systems, protect us from viruses and possibly even automatically call for help if we are injured.

In the latest round in the quest for clever clothes, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed yarn that looks and acts like regular yarn. But it can detect the presence of blood, making it theoretically possible to make clothes that will alert the command post if a police officer or soldier has been wounded.

The Michigan team has taken the technology beyond the current use of metallic or optic electrical conductors, which tend to be fragile and can rust or corrode.

Weaving in Nanotechnology

"We have found a much simpler way, an elegant way, by combining two fibers, one natural and one created by nanotechnology," engineering professor Nicolas Kotov said in announcing the development.

The key to the technology is the use of carbon nanotubes, revolutionary tiny tubes that can be 1/50,000th the thickness of a human hair, but up to 40,000 times as long as they are thick. Nanotubes are extremely strong, and have very useful properties, including the conduction of heat and electricity.

Kotov's team found that if they dipped a piece of cotton yarn into water containing carbon nanotubes, and then into a solution of ethanol with a sticky polymer, the yarn could conduct enough electricity from a battery to illuminate a light-emitting diode.

They then found that if they added an agent to the solution that reacts to albumin, a protein found in blood, the conductivity increased significantly. Kotov suggested that it could be possible to use that change in conductivity to automatically cause a cell phone or other communication device to send a distress signal because of the presence of blood. That could alert authorities even if the person is unconscious.

It's also theoretically possible to use the same technology to monitor various health functions, including blood pressure and pulse.

Moving Into Unchartered Territory

The process is "very easy to do," Kotov said, but like so many technologies on the "nano scale," it's likely to be somewhat controversial.

Nanotechnology involves controlling matter on the atomic or molecular scale, and that is taking us into uncharted territory. There is some debate within the scientific community over fears that tiny machines, some of which would be self replicating, could do more harm than good, especially in the many potential applications in public health, pharmaceuticals, electronics and the environment.

However, at this point, there appears to be only one minor drawback in the Michigan work. The carbon solution turns the yarn black, thus somewhat limiting the range of fashion statements.

In another approach, researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom have invented a thin plastic film that is very flexible and can also conduct electricity. They see a world in which fashion-conscious folks will wear garments made with their film, comprised of thousands of tiny light emitting diodes. That could make it possible to change the color of the garment with the flip of a switch.

Don't like black? How about red? Bingo.

Multi-Purpose Clothing on the Horizon

It's beginning to look like just about everybody wants a piece of the garment industry.

Building on research conducted at the University of California-Davis, a Seattle firm is developing cotton textiles that are treated with an antimicrobial compound that purportedly kills pathogens and viruses, and even wipes out odor-causing bacteria.

Meanwhile, researchers at Binghamton University in New York say they have developed a process that uses ink to conduct electricity, so circuits can be printed on fabric as easily as a newspaper prints yesterday's news. The beauty of this project is the possibility of having clothes that can heat, or cool, the wearer just by flipping a switch.

Of course, some of the research in this area is pretty far out. A number of folks are hoping to create fabrics coated with silicon nanowires. That could make it possible for clothing to offer an optical display, like a sunny beach scene in the dead of winter.

A more practical application is data presentation on the surface of a contact lens, perhaps reminding the wearer not to yammer on the cell phone while driving the car.

Still others are trying to incorporate sensors in clothes that will generate electricity based on the movements of the wearer, thus charging the cell phone, or the other electronic gizmos that we can't get along without these days.

All this may be a bit mind boggling, considering that just a short time ago all we really needed was basic black.