A washing machine may no longer stand in the way of a pair of biosensing underwear. Scientists at the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas have created yarn that contains conductive materials which can be woven, knitted or sewn into textiles. The yarn is reusable even after a wash.
To do this, the scientists use a powder made of conductive materials– “guest particles,” in research-speak– that gets soaked or sprayed as an aerosol into a matrix of nanotubes. Then they put magnets on each end of the matrix, which is over a thousand times thinner than a human hair, and spin it until the nanotubes form a fiber thick enough to weave into a textile and keep the powder in. The final nanotube yarn can be incorporated into other fiber and textile products, including clothing, and washed without losing a significant amount of the powder. Perhaps the original matrix of nanotubes could even be sprayed with virus-built batteries that are in development, making a shirt or backpack into an on-the-go cell phone or an iPod charger.
So far, the yarn holds up in tests. The researchers tried washing it in a standard washing machine as well as soaking it for three hours at high temperature. In neither case did they detect loss of the powder. This immediately seems like great news for the average consumer who wants a shirt-operated music player or a light up skirt, but nanotube yarn that withstands the elements is also great news for engineers. The applications are not all for tiny superconductors or batteries either; as Paul Marks describes in this New Scientist article, one example might be for aircraft:
I recently met a group of engineering and art students from the Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University who were enrolled in a joint course focused on designing smart textiles. They spent a semester learning how to weave sensors into fabric and fibers to make projects that respond to sound, light, pulse, and other environmental cues. You can read my reporting on the class here. With the next generation of designers and engineers like these already inventing applications, I expect to see nanotube yarn weaving its way into consumer goods and military devices alike in the next few years.