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T-Shirt Transistors?

Polypropylene fiber before conductive nanocoating.

The touch, the feel … the conductivity … of cotton. Researchers at NC State hope to make that a reality by applying conductive nanocoatings to common textile materials in order to improve current and future electronic devices.

Normally, conductive nanocoatings are applied to inorganic materials like silicon. But researchers believe nanotechnology can be used to create conductive properties in textiles – cheap, flexible materials with a contorted surface texture. Why textiles? Because natural materials are more cost-effective and safer for the environment.

Using a technique called atomic layer deposition, coatings of inorganic materials, typically used in devices such as solar cells, sensors and microelectronics, were grown on the surface of textiles like woven cotton and nonwoven polypropylene – the same material that goes into reusable grocery store bags. “Imagine coating a textile fabric so that each fiber has the same nanoscale-thick coating that is thousands of times thinner than a human hair – that’s what atomic layer deposition is capable of doing,” says Dr. Jesse Jur, assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science, and lead author on a paper describing the research.

Polypropylene fiber after conductive nanocoating.

“We’re not expecting to make complex transistors with cotton, but there are simple electronic devices that could benefit by using the lightweight flexibility

that some textile materials provide,” Jur explains. “Research like this has potential health and monitoring applications since we could potentially create a

uniform with cloth sensors embedded in the actual material that could track heart rate, body temperature, movement and more in real time. To do this now, you would need to stick a bunch of wires throughout the fabric – which would make it bulky and uncomfortable.

“In the world of electronics, smaller and more lightweight is always the ideal. If we can improve the process of how to apply and measure conductive coatings on textiles, we may move the needle in creating devices that have the requisite conductive properties, with all the benefits that using natural textile materials affords us,” Jur says.

The article describing the research was featured in the July 2011 issue of Advanced Functional Materials.