Imperial College London researchers created a conductive cotton thread that can undergo a computerized embroidery process for incorporation into commercially produced textiles, such as t-shirts and face masks. The thread, called PECOTEX, can be used to create wearable health sensors, such as heart rate monitors, breathing monitors and even gas sensors, including ammonia sensors for the breath, which can provide information on liver and kidney function.
The embroidered sensors are machine washable and are stronger and more conductive than previously developed conductive threads. The major benefit, though, is the thread’s compatibility with industrial computerized embroidery machines, meaning that it can easily and inexpensively be incorporated in a wide range of commercially available textiles.
Integrating health sensors into everyday clothing or face masks makes a lot of sense. After all, we wear such items everyday and they are frequently in close contact with our skin. However, if clothing that contains health sensors is to become widely adopted, it would be beneficial if such technologies are compatible with existing industrial manufacturing processes.
The less ‘specialized’ a technology is to manufacture, the less expensive it is and it is more likely that it will be used by many people. This is the impetus for this latest technology, PECOTEX thread, which aims to bring health sensing clothing to a greater pool of users.
“The flexible medium of clothing means our sensors have a wide range of applications,” said Fahad Alshabouna, a researcher involved in the study. “They’re also relatively easy to produce which means we could scale up manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearables in clothing.”
The researchers created the PECOTEX thread by crosslinking poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) polystyrene sulfonate (PEDOT:PSS) and cotton thread using divinyl sulfone as a crosslinker. The thread is very inexpensive, costing just $0.15 per meter, which can then go on to form multiple sensors in a garment.
“PECOTEX is high-performing, strong, and adaptable to different needs. It’s readily scalable, meaning we can produce large volumes inexpensively using both domestic and industrial computerised embroidery machines,” said Firat Guder, another researcher involved in the study. “Our research opens up exciting possibilities for wearable sensors in everyday clothing. By monitoring breathing, heart rate, and gases, they can already be seamlessly integrated, and might even be able to help diagnose and monitor treatments of disease in the future.”
Here’s a video from Imperial about the technology: