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Conductive Fibers – Upgrading The Fashion Industry

Conductive Fibers

Conductive fibers in fashion; metallic garments are becoming an integral part of fashion as metallic yarns are used in high-quality fashion goods given their intrinsic properties such as durability.

Metallic threads give fashion garments an inimitable character, making everyday clothes look chic and attractive.

But what makes these yarns so special is their capacity to conduct electricity.

Most metallic fibers are all-metal made. However, recent advancements allow for classic fibers to be coated with metals.

The delicate threads are then spun and knitted via conventional methods while retaining the properties of the metals from which they are produced.

Smart Underwear by Conductive Fibers

The most common choice of metallic strands contains gold and silver, though aluminum yarns, aluminized nylon, and aluminized plastic yarns are also used.

The process works by taking ‘classic’ fibers and exposing them to the so-called ‘metalizing’ process. Here, the metal is heated until vapourization and then deposited on the fiber.

The resultant fibers are thin, flexible, durable, and very comfortable.

Another process involves dipping the fibers into sulphuric acid to create toeholds that become encrusted with nickel crystals after being soaked in palladium salt and a nickel-plating solution.

The now-conductive fiber is then rigged to a charged copper ingot in a bath, with the result that copper particles electroplate its surface.

Metallic fibers are already used in upholstery, carpets, home textiles, needlepoint embroidery, protective suits, space suits, and most party-oriented outfits.

However, given the yarn’s conductive capabilities, these fibers are increasingly adopted and used by fashion designers in self-warming jackets, smart knickers, connected underwear (yes, you’ve got that right), and intelligent handbags.

Conductive fibers are much lighter than metallic wires, thus able to increase the durability of the products without increasing their weight or wearability.

Moreover, constant developments in fashion technology have led to a new wave of fashion garments that contain wearable sensors and act as extra skin for electronic devices.

Body-Sensing Apparel With Conductive Fibers

With costs falling and usage increasing, connected threads are a growing business, says Hugo Trux, head of the Conductive Fibres Manufacturing Council (CFMC).

As the fibers conduct electricity, the garments can be used as hosts of smart electronics as well.

Colin Cork and his colleagues at the Advanced Textiles Research Group at Nottingham Trent University in the UK have embroidered hidden antennae onto shirts using silver-coated thread.

The embroidered antennae are invisible and can be used by devices worn by the user to transmit and receive radio signals or to boost the device’s own transmission range.

More companies use conductive fibers to implant RFID tags and track invaluable luxury garments and goods. Adidas is knitting conductive fibers into its sport apparel lines to produce “textile electrodes”.

These are a few square centimeters in size and pick up signals from the heart and other muscles. The data gathered is transmitted through the garment to a sensor that processes the data and passes it wirelessly to a user’s mobile phone.

The data is then transmitted by an athlete to his coach or by a patient to a doctor, says Stacey Burr, head of wearable electronics for Adidas.

Building on the foundation of connected fibers, many more companies are developing body-sensing apparel. At the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin, researchers have come up with textile electrodes that measure the electrical activity of the large trapezius muscle in the shoulder and neck.

The system can distinguish between physical and psychological stress, informing a wearer when it is best to pause during exercise.

‘Smart-Wear’ Fashion

Attaching conventional electrodes to someone’s body for the same purpose can itself cause them stress, says Torsten Linz, a member of the research team.

Similarly, researchers from the e-textiles lab at Virginia Tech use conductive fabric to shuttle battery power and data to and from miniature gyroscopes and compasses fastened to shirt cuffs and other bits of clothing.

The new trend of ‘conductive fibers’ will soon permeate the broad ‘lifestyle fashion’ market, reckons Joanna Berzowska, head of electronic textiles at OMsignal, a Montreal startup.

Joanna’s company is developing ‘smart-wear’ fashion garments that feel like everyday wear. The garments use silver and steel blends that record and report on the wearer’s body processes, which are then presented to the wearer via a smartphone.

Industrial Use of Conductive Fibers

Besides adding functionality to clothes, conductive fibers have huge potential as a weight-saving material. Every kilo removed from a typical airliner reduces its lifetime fuel cost by roughly $2,200.

As such, luxury cars and jets could become lighter and more efficient by replacing the metal wiring with natural and synthetic fibers treated to conduct electricity.

In fact, a cottony yarn branded ARACON is already used by Airbus and Boeing in some of their luxury jets.

DuPont developed ARACON as an alternative to its Kevlar fiber, which is used in things ranging from bulletproof vests to drum heads.

Micro-Coax, a firm in Pennsylvania, makes ARACON by coating the synthetic fibers of Kevlar with copper, nickel, and silver. The resulting yarn is not just lighter than metal wire but also much tougher and more flexible.

Conductive fibers are redefining how electrical wirings are used as power-transmission lines are replaced with aluminum and copper-coated synthetic fibers such as Zylon, making power lines at least a third lighter and at least several times stronger, reckons Mr. Abel.

More exotic applications are emerging as CanShielding, an Ontario firm, is developing lightweight carbon and silver-fiber aprons to protect X-ray technicians. The company is also developing a type of material able to absorb radar signals.

Conductive Fibers on the Catwalk

Back to personal fashion, smart lingerie is predicted to become a hot trend in the near future.

“A huge American fashion group has shown interest in a textile called ‘Fabcell’ that uses liquid-crystal inks to change color when a battery warms its fibers,” says its inventor, Akira Wakita of Keio University in Japan.

SwicoFil, a Swiss company, makes a range of conductive fibers, including a gold-coated thread for Rococo Dessous, which produces luxury lingerie.

The conductive fibers business in wearable electronics generated over $22 billion in 2017 and is predicted to rise to $70 billion by the end of 2024, a clear indicator of an emerging textile-integrated electronics market. The catwalks of London, Milan, New York, and Paris are bound to get a lot more interesting.