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August 30, 2021

by Mike Williams, Rice University

No need to put on uncomfortable smartwatches or chest straps to monitor your heart when your comfortable shirt is doing a better job.

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This is the idea behind “smart clothing” developed by a Rice University laboratory that uses its conductive nanotube thread to weave functionality into normal clothing.

The laboratory of the Brown School of Engineering des Chemical and biomolecular engineer Matteo Pasquali reported in the American Chemical Society’s Nano Letters magazine that nanotube fibers were sewn into sportswear to monitor heart rate and create a continuous electrocardiogram (EKG) of the wearer.

The fibers are just as conductive like metal wires, but washable, comfortable, and far less likely when a body is in motion, the researchers said.

By and large, the shirt they upgraded was better than a standard chest strap at collecting data Monitor that took live measurements during the experiments. In combination with commercial medical electrode monitors, the carbon nanotube shirt gave slightly better EKGs.

“The shirt must fit snugly around the chest,” says Lauren Taylor, a graduate of the Rice study, lead author of the study. “In future studies, we will focus on using denser spots of carbon nanotube filaments so that more surface area is available for contact with the skin.” The researchers found that nanotube fibers are soft and flexible and Clothing containing them is machine washable. The fibers can be sewn into the fabric by machine like normal thread. The zigzag stitch pattern allows the fabric to stretch without breaking.

The fibers not only made constant electrical contact with the wearer’s skin, but also served as electrodes to electronics like bluetooth Transmitters to pass data to a smartphone or connect to a Holter monitor that can be stowed in a user’s pocket, Taylor said.

Pasquali’s lab introduced carbon nanotube fibers in 2013. Since then, the fibers, each containing tens of billions of nanotubes, have been studied as bridges for repairing damaged hearts, as electrical interfaces to the brain, for use in cochlear implants, as flexible antennas, and for automotive and aerospace applications. Their development is also part of the Rice-based Carbon Hub, a multi-university research initiative led by Rice that was launched in 2019.

The original nanotube filaments, around 22 micrometers wide, were too thin for a sewing machine. Taylor said a rope maker was used to make a sewable thread, essentially three bundles of seven filaments each, woven in a size roughly the same as normal thread.

“We worked with someone who sells small machines designed to make ropes for model ships, “said Taylor, who initially tried hand-weaving the thread with limited success. “He was able to make us a medium-sized device that does the same thing.”

She said the zigzag pattern can be adjusted to take into account how thick a shirt or other fabric is probably stretching. Taylor said the team works with Dr. Mehdi Razavi and his colleagues at the Texas Heart Institute worked together to find out how to maximize skin contact.

Fibers woven into tissue can also be used to embed antennas or LEDs, according to the researchers. Subtle changes to the geometry of the fibers and associated electronics could eventually allow the clothing to monitor vital signs, force exertion, or respiratory rate.

Taylor noted that other potential uses include automobiles or soft robotics or human-machine interfaces than could include antennas, health monitors, and ballistic protection in military uniforms. “We showed with a colleague a few years ago that carbon nanotube fibers can dissipate energy per weight better than Kevlar, without some of the improvements we’ve had since in tensile strength,” she said.

” We see that after two decades of development in laboratories around the world, this material works in more and more applications, ”said Pasquali. “Because of the combination of conductivity, good skin contact, biocompatibility and softness, carbon nanotube threads are a natural part of wearables.” He said that the wearable market, although relatively small, is an entry point for a new one Generation of sustainable materials that can be extracted from hydrocarbons through direct fission, a process that also produces clean hydrogen. The development of such materials is a focus of the Carbon Hub.

“We are in the same situation as solar cells a few decades ago,” said Pasquali. “We need application guides that can provide an incentive to scale production and increase efficiency.”

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