Graphene wizards commercialising new wearable technology
Cambridge UK researchers are claiming a revolutionary breakthrough in wearable technology that they say will trigger huge benefits for healthcare and well-being.
A host of other applications, including for the military, are potential paybacks from a new technique that allows graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – to be directly printed onto fabric to produce integrated electronic circuits that are comfortable to wear and can survive up to 20 cycles in a typical washing machine.
Dr Felice Torrisi of the Cambridge Graphene Centre told Business Weekly that the work could lead to a number of commercial opportunities for two-dimensional material inks – not just personal health and well-being and military garments but also wearable energy harvesting and storage, wearable computing and fashion and multiple uses for the Internet of Things.
The technology is being commercialised by Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation arm.
Dr Torrisi said “Bio-sensors based on graphene field effect transistors are one of the most accurate sensors demonstrated so far.
“Our technology would allow to put them directly onto fabric. This would enable accurate detection of pH, glucose or specific analytes directly from a fabric printed with our integrated circuits with no need for rigid electronics biasing it. This is ground-breaking for healthcare applications and well-being.
“Military applications are in the area of fabric antennas, motion sensors and lighting. The current technology can already deliver printed antennas and RF-ID tags with our graphene inks and the transistor heterostructures as well as the motion sensors (published on carbon last year).
Further developments of this technology would enable lighting fabrics for night operations and security.
The researchers from the University of Cambridge, working with colleagues in Italy and China, have successfully incorporated washable, stretchable and breathable electronic circuits into fabric. This, in turn, opens up new possibilities for safe and environmentally friendly inks, produced using conventional inkjet printing techniques.
The new textile electronic devices are based on low-cost, sustainable and scalable inkjet printing of inks based on graphene and other two-dimensional materials, and are produced by standard processing techniques.
Based on earlier work on the formulation of graphene inks for printed electronics, the team designed low-boiling point inks, which were directly printed onto polyester fabric.
They also found that modifying the roughness of the fabric improved the performance of the printed devices. The versatility of this process allowed the researchers to design not only single transistors but all-printed integrated electronic circuits combining active and passive components.
Most wearable electronic devices that are currently available rely on rigid electronic components mounted on plastic, rubber or textiles. These offer limited compatibility with the skin in many circumstances, are damaged when washed and are uncomfortable to wear because they are not breathable.
“Thanks to nanotechnology, in the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based electronics, such as displays or sensors and become interactive,” said Dr Torrisi.
The use of graphene and other related 2D material (GRM) inks to create electronic components and devices integrated into fabrics and innovative textiles is at the centre of new technical advances in the smart textiles industry.
The teams at the Cambridge Graphene Centre and Politecnico di Milano are also involved in the Graphene Flagship, an EC-funded, pan-European project dedicated to bringing graphene and GRM technologies to commercial applications.
The research was supported by grants from the Graphene Flagship, the European Research Council’s Synergy Grant, The Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, The Newton Trust, the International Research Fellowship of the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China.
• PHOTOGRAPH: Sample circuit printed on fabric. Credit: Felice Torrisi.