Smart textiles may be the sportswear of the future


June 27, 2023

(Nanowerk News) Using a composite of nanomagnets and conductive threads, scientists have devised a smart textile that can sense and measure body movements—from tensing muscles to pulsing blood vessels. Devices, presented in the journal Affairs (“A textile magnetoelastic patch for customized, personalized muscle physiotherapy”), self-powered, stretchy, durable, water-resistant, and can be made on a sewing machine for a few dollars. It may one day assist doctors in assessing muscle injuries and supporting patient recovery.

Smart textiles are technically not made of cloth but have a cloth-like texture. It’s made of a rubber patch filled with nanomagnets that’s about the size of two postage stamps. Using a sewing machine, the researchers sewed silver-coated conductive threads onto the patches in a spool design. Mechanical forces, such as finger tapping, can disrupt the magnetic field patterns within the rubber, creating an electric current through the threads. The two phenomena whereby a force changes the magnetic field and a variation in magnetic flux generates electricity are known as the magnetoelastic effect and electromagnetic induction.

“Our device is very sensitive to biomechanical stress,” said senior author Jun Chen (@JunChenLab) of the Department of Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles. “The device converts muscle activity into high-fidelity electrical signals that can be measured and sent wirelessly to a phone app. This shows the potential for personalized physical therapy and enhancing muscle injury rehabilitation.”

The device is not only sensitive, but also precise, detailing body movements down to every muscle group. Attaching the devices to different parts of the body, the researchers clearly measured throat movements when drinking water, ankle movements when walking, and even monitored a person’s pulse from their wrist. When attached to a person’s biceps, the device can show whether they are bending their arm or gripping a fist and the extent of the force. Based on this type of information, doctors can locate the Goldilocks zone to prevent overexcursion and encourage moderate activity, tailoring recovery goals for their patients.

Chen and his team also tested the device’s functionality. To mimic real-world conditions like excessive sweating and heavy rain, the team wet the device with a spray of water and tested its signal output. Signal remains strong. As well as being water-resistant, the device is also elastic and durable, with 3.5 times the length and withstanding 100,000 cycles of deformation.

From a production standpoint, Chen notes that the kit is easy to build and highly scalable, and each patch is estimated to cost less than $3.

“Another highlight of this device is its self-powering nature,” said Chen. “The ability to convert biomechanical forces into electricity means this device is also a generator. This eliminates the need for bulky, heavy, and rigid battery packs typically required in wearable electronics designs.”

Next, the team wanted to make smart textiles thinner and lighter to optimize the wearer experience. Chen and his team, who discovered magnetoelastic effects in soft systems in 2021, also plan to explore new ways to incorporate their findings into wearable or implantable bioelectronics.

“We have tested the device for cardiovascular monitoring as well as respiratory monitoring,” said Chen. “One day, we may be able to reinvent or replace current systems, such as EKGs, that require an external power source, and make them less bulky and more wearable.”


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