​Clothes that receive and transmit digital information

Imagine shirts that act as smart-phone antennas, workout clothes that monitor fitness level, sports equipment that monitors performance, a bandage that tells your doctor how well the tissue beneath is healing, or a flexible fabric cap that senses brain signals
April 13, 2016

Researchers at The Ohio State University are developing embroidered antennas and circuits with 0.1 mm precision — the perfect size to integrate electronic components such as communication devices, sensors, and computer memory devices into clothing.  (credit: Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University)

Ohio State University researchers have taken a key step in the design of  “functional textiles” — clothes that gather, store, or transmit digital information. They’ve developed a breakthrough method of weaving electronic components into fabric with 0.1mm precision — small enough to integrate components such as sensors and computer memory devices into clothing.

Imagine shirts that act as antennas for your smart phone or tablet, workout clothes that monitor your fitness level, sports equipment that monitors athletes’ performance, a bandage that tells your doctor how well the tissue beneath is healing, or a flexible fabric cap that senses or stimulates activity in the brain (eliminating restrictive tethered external wiring on the patient’s body).

“A revolution is happening in the textile industry,” said John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory and the Roy & Lois Chope Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State. “We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing — and one day, even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring.”

Recently, he and research scientist Asimina Kiourti refined their patented fabrication method to create prototype wearables at a fraction of the cost and in half the time compared to two years ago. They published the new results in the journal IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters.

Cell-phone antennas

Asimina Kiourti, a research scientist at The Ohio State University, demonstrates the embroidery technique she and John Volakis invented for integrating electronics into clothing (photo credit: Jo McCulty/The Ohio State University)

In Volakis’ lab, the functional textiles, also called “e-textiles,” are created in part on a typical tabletop sewing machine. Like other modern sewing machines, it embroiders thread into fabric automatically based on a pattern loaded from a computer file. The researchers substitute the thread with fine silver metal wires that, once embroidered, feel the same as traditional thread to the touch.

“We started with a technology that is very well known — machine embroidery — and we asked: how can we functionalize embroidered shapes? How do we make them transmit signals at useful frequencies, like for cell phones or health sensors?” Volakis said. “Now, for the first time, we’ve achieved the accuracy of printed metal circuit boards, so our new goal is to take advantage of the precision to incorporate receivers and other electronic components.”

Broadband antenna constructed from multiple embroidered geometric shapes, each resonating at a different frequency (photo credit: Jo McCulty/The Ohio State University)

The shape of the embroidery determines the frequency of operation of the antenna or circuit, explained Kiourti. The shape of one broadband antenna, for instance, consists of more than half a dozen interlocking geometric shapes, each a little bigger than a fingernail, that form an intricate circle a few inches across. Each piece of the circle transmits energy at a different frequency, so that they cover a broad spectrum of energies when working together — achieving a “broadband” capability of the antenna for cell phone and Internet access.

In another design, tests showed that an embroidered spiral antenna (top photo) measuring approximately six inches across transmitted signals at frequencies of 1 to 5 GHz with near-perfect efficiency,  well-suited to broadband Internet and cellular communication.


Proposed embroidery process to achieve 0.1mm geometrical precision (credit: Asimina Kiourti et al./IEEE Antennas Wireless Propag. Lett.)

On problem they had was that fine wires couldn’t provide as much surface conductivity as thick wires. So they had to find a way to work the fine thread into embroidery densities and shapes that would boost the surface conductivity and, thus, the antenna/sensor performance.

The new threads have a 0.1-mm diameter, made with only seven filaments. Each filament is copper at the center, enameled with pure silver. They purchase the wire by the spool at a cost of 3 cents per foot; Kiourti estimated that embroidering a single broadband antenna like the one mentioned above consumes about 10 feet 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 new, 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 RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip embedded in rubber, takes the applications for the technology beyond clothing — for tires, in this case.

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 center for industry and government. The new institute, which joins some 50 universities and industrial partners, was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Defense 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.

Abstract of Fabrication of Textile Antennas and Circuits With 0.1 mm Precision

We present a new selection of E-fibers (also referred to as E-threads) and associated embroidery process. The new E-threads and process achieve a geometrical precision down to 0.1 mm. Thus, for the first time, accuracy of typical printed circuit board (PCB) prototypes can be achieved directly on textiles. Compared to our latest embroidery approach, the proposed process achieves: 1) 3 × higher geometrical precision; 2) 24 × lower fabrication cost; 3) 50% less fabrication time; and 4) equally good RF performance. This improvement was achieved by employing a new class of very thin, 7-filament, Elektrisola E-threads ( diameter ≈ 0.12 mm, almost 2 × thinner than before). To validate our approach, we “printed” and tested a textile spiral antenna operating between 1-5 GHz. Measurement results were in good agreement with simulations. We envision this textile spiral to be integrated within a cap and unobtrusively acquire neuropotentials from wireless fully-passive brain implants. Overall, the proposed embroidery approach brings forward new possibilities for a wide range of applications.