The new semiconductor embedded fabric is the missing link in a new generation of smart clothing for biomedical, military and communication applications. In the past few years, researchers have made significant progress in developing textiles, including sensors and other electronic components, to support the design of smart clothing. Now, a team at MIT – working with other scientists – has made a major breakthrough in advancing these technologies by developing cloth embedded in semiconductors. The researchers believe their findings could speed up the development of wearable technology.

Specifically, researchers from academia and the private sector have embedded high-speed optoelectronic semiconductor devices in optical fibers and turned them into soft, washable fabrics that can be used as high-tech communication systems. Inman Mills, of south Carolina, makes the fabric, making “hardware and software” that people can wear, the researchers said in a press release from the Massachusetts institute of technology.

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“We expect to see ‘Moore’s law’ simulative fibers in the next few years,” said Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts institute of technology. The research was done by MIT, Inman Mills, the American advanced functional textile industry organization (AFFOA), Lincoln laboratories and EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland.” It has allowed us to extend the basic functions of fabrics, including communications, lighting, physiological monitoring, etc.,” Fink said in the MIT announcement.

Fink, who is also AFFOA’s President, said fabrics were a missing link in the true evolution of wearable technology and would usher in an “Era of value-added services that go beyond aesthetics and comfort”.

In the past, researchers have developed optical fibers by making a cylindrical object called a “prefabricated rod” — basically an enlarged model of an optical fiber that is then heated. They then pull down the softened material under tension and collect the fibers that lead to the spools. The researchers’ work to produce the new fibers adds two important additions to the prefabricated rods: the size of a light-emitting diode (led) as a grain of sand, and a pair of copper wires is a fraction of the width of a human hair.

In the process of fiber stretching, prefabricated rods are heated in the furnace to partially liquefy into long fibers, and diodes are arranged along their centers and connected by copper wires. These diodes – including leds and photoelectric sensors – are rugged components made by standard microchip technology. The researchers say they keep the dimensions while everything shrinks around them during the drawing process.

“This approach adds new insights during the process of making fibers,” says Michael Lane, a former MIT graduate student who developed the concept that led to the new process.” Instead of absorbing all the materials together in liquid form, we mix equipment in the form of particles with fine wires.”

The resulting fabric was washed 10 times to prove it was suitable for making clothes, they said. They also tested it in water, placing some light-sensitive fibers in fish tanks and keeping them there for weeks.

The team published a paper about their work in the journal Nature. The researchers aim to bring the first commercial products using the technology to market as early as next year, Fink said, adding that by working with AFFOA, it has achieved rapid labor-to-market development.

The first products will focus on communications and security, he said.” This will be the first fabric communications system”, fink said. “we are now in the process of transforming technology to domestic manufacturers and industries at an unprecedented speed and scale.”

Other USES for the fabric, including military applications, are already being explored by the ministry of defense, the researchers said. It’s also ideal for biomedical devices that can use fiber to develop wearable technology to measure pulse or blood oxygen levels, or smart bandages to monitor healing.