In recent years, the development of increasingly small electronic components has allowed technology manufacturers to design and produce a multitude of innovative wearable devices, including sophisticated headphones, fitness trackers, smart watches, smart glasses, and much more.
The project by the Nottingham Trent University (NTU) could pave the way for an exciting new class of devices: electronic textiles that can be used to make smart items of clothing or accessories. This fascinating endeavour has been made to achieve a reliable and effective process for manufacturing yarns embedded with electronic circuitry.
“As part of this project, we will use electronic yarn (E-yarn) technology,” NTU’s Dr Theodore Hughes-Riley told Electronics Point. “This allows for small-scale electronic components to be embedded into the core of textile yarns that can subsequently be used to create textiles and garments.”
The project, carried out by Dr Hughes-Riley and other researchers who are part of NTU’s Advanced Textiles Research Group, has recently been awarded a £1.3m grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). This grant should help to advance E-yarn so that it can be manufactured on an industrial scale—ultimately enabling the creation of various innovative devices.
Dr Theodore Hughes-Riley (standing in front of the E-yarn manufacturing equipment). Image Credit: the University of Nottingham Trent.
What E-yarn Is and How It Works
Again, E-yarns are essentially yarn with threads such as those commonly used to make clothes, but with electronic components embedded in them. If they were used to make items of clothing, E-yarns could have many different functions, for instance acting as a phone or other communication device, but also monitoring people’s heart rates and blood-oxygen levels.
“To create the E-yarns, we take a commercially-available chip and first solder it onto thin, multi-strand copper wires,” Dr Hughes-Riley explained. “The solder joints and the chip are then encased within a small cylindrical resin micro-pod.”
The researchers then cover the micro-pod and wires in fibres and a fibrous sheath, ultimately forming an E-yarn. E-yarns can contain almost any type of component. However, the larger the component is, the thicker the yarn will be. A typical E-yarn, such as most of the ones created by Dr Hughes-Riley and his colleagues, has a diameter of about 1 mm.
“In principle, you could embed all of the electronic components necessary to create a computer within E-yarns. These could be wired together within a garment, leading to a wearable textile computer,” Dr Hughes-Riley said.
Despite their electronic capabilities, items of clothing made using E-yarns are incredibly discrete. In fact, when wearing a shirt embedded with the technology, one does not feel anything different than what they would feel with a normal shirt on. E-yarns are easy to weave into clothing, mechanically robust, and machine-washable. They are also undetectable to the naked eye and look like any other thread.
A close-up of the machine used to produce E-yarn. Image Credit: the University of Nottingham Trent.
New Possibilities for a Variety of Industries
By enabling the creation of textile-based products that have the same functions as computers, smart phones, fitness trackers, or other portable devices, E-yarn could bring innovation to a variety of industries.
“Textiles are ubiquitous, and the E-yarns could be used to give any textile electronic functionality,” Dr Hughes-Riley said. “We can therefore see a wealth of possible applications for the technology across many industries, such as fashion, healthcare, and sports.”
In the future, E-yarn could be used to create consumer tech and fashion items, such as smart shirts, jackets, bracelets, bags, or other textile-based products. However, it could also be introduced in settings where people may benefit from not carrying too many devices (for instance, military and aerospace)..
Another interesting possibility may involve developing smart clothing for use in healthcare settings, which could help monitor, collect, and record patients’ heart rate or other health-related data over time. Similarly, E-yarn could enable the creation of tools to monitor the performance, health, and fitness of athletes.
“We have conducted a wealth of research into creating early stage prototypes using the E-yarn technology,” Dr Hughes-Riley added. “For example, we have developed textile solar panels which can be used to charge mobile devices on the go, and acoustic sensing E-yarns that can monitor noise exposure, which is a useful tool for health surveillance.”
An example of wearable technology (namely a fabric embedded with a light-up display function) created using the University of Nottingham Trent’s E-yarn technology. Image Credit: the University of Nottingham Trent.
What Sets E-yarn Apart from Other Electronic Textiles
Dr Hughes-Riley and his colleagues are not the first researchers who have tried to develop electronic textiles. The technology they came up with, however, has many unique characteristics that distinguish it from previously proposed solutions.
Electronic textiles are typically made in one of two ways: either by printing or attaching electronics onto the surface of a textile item, or by creating sensors/interconnections using conductive yarns. But both of these approaches have considerable disadvantages.
Attaching electronics to the surface of a textile, for instance, has a significant impact on some of its characteristics, such as its drape, breathability, and heat transfer properties. This ultimately makes items of clothing that are made of these electronic fibers uncomfortable and difficult to wear.
“Electronic textiles made using conductive yarns are limited in their applications; for instance, they can primarily be used for electrode-based sensing,” Dr Hughes-Riley said. “The E-yarns we developed, on the other hand, allow for any small-scale electronic component to be integrated into a garment in a dispersed way. This results in textiles that have the look and feel of a normal textile and retain normal textile characteristics.”
Fueling Innovation in the UK
This recent project is only the latest in a series of important successes for the University of Nottingham Trent. In fact, Nottingham Trent was named University of the Year 2019 at the Guardian University Awards, University of the Year 2017 by the Times, and Modern University of the Year 2018 by the Sunday Times (visit NTU’s Awards page for more information). These are based on the quality of the teaching it offers, as well as on its high levels of student engagement and satisfaction. In 2015, NTU also received The Queen’s Anniversary Prize, which is generally seen as the highest national honour for a UK university.
Alongside the above awards, the said £1.3m grant that the EPSRC awarded for the advancement of the E-yarn project is the largest grant it has offered to a school of art and design. With this grant, NTU’s Advanced Textiles Research Group plans to continue advancing the technology, in the hope that it will ultimately bring great innovation in the UK, across a variety of industries.
“We believe that a range of UK-based industries will be able to use the results of this project to develop new products,” Dr Hughes-Riley said. “This will help position the UK as leaders in the growing E-textiles sector. We also think that knowledge generated from the project will be of benefit to UK academics.”
From left to right: William Hurley, Tilak Dias, and Theodore Hughes-Riley—the three main researchers working on the E-yarn technology. Image Credit: the University of Nottingham Trent.
The Future of the Project
Dr Hughes-Riley and his colleagues have already developed several new technologies using E-yarn, including solar cell-embedded textiles that can charge mobile phones or other portable devices. Introducing a reliable method to produce E-yarn on an industrial scale is the next crucial step, as this would ultimately allow companies to experiment with the technology and use it to create new products.
“By the end of this project, we will have created a pilot production line enabling us to embed complex electronic circuitry within yarns on a scale much larger than we are currently able to,” Dr Hughes-Riley said. “Being able to produce high quantities of complex E-yarns will allow us to develop new prototype garments and use the E-yarns for new applications.”
The £1.3m grant awarded by the EPSRC is likely to play an important part in advancing the technology. In fact, Dr Hughes-Riley and his colleagues will be investing the funds on the development of effective processes to automate the production of E-yarns.
“The purpose of the grant is to develop the production engineering knowledge to manufacture complex E-yarns in an automated way,” concludes Dr Hughes-Riley. “This will enable us to produce E-yarn on a much larger scale than is currently possible.”