The beginner's guide to smart materials

When technology and textiles fuse you get smart materials, and they promise to transform the way we live

If science is cool and inventing new 'stuff' even better, then fusing technology and materials to make 'smart textiles' is a growth area that is seeing a real spike in interest from budding innovators around the globe. In fact, such is the interest level in this area of the tech spectrum that there are now numerous courses to be found at universities in an array of countries that'll give you hands-on experience of emerging materials.

Smart thinking

Touch-sensitive textiles and all manner of other emerging materials are currently being combined with electronics to make clothes, fabrics and even household furnishings a very different proposition in the future. Crucially, the UK is at the forefront of much of this development, with a raft of new course opportunities out there for folks who fancy creating their own wonder fabric or touch-tastic material.

Olivia Ojiroye, who's currently deep in the midst of research for her PhD at Southampton University, is a prime example. “I think we should explore how materials we use daily can be used in new ways,” she says. “We should question ourselves, 'Is there untapped innovation? Can we use new ways of thinking to get the most out of existing materials?' This is the mental shift I am applying to my research.”

Creative streak

Innovation is central to what Olivia is working towards, and, in particular, her PhD research is focusing on the convergence of electronics and textiles. The end results are based on these so-called 'smart textiles', which, says Olivia, are natural textiles with a technological advantage. They can sense and respond to the environment using electronic sensors, circuitry or some degree of conductive elements.

So, it looks like in the not-too-distant future we could all be wearing things like smart socks that regulate our feet depending on the temperature or, perhaps, suits that can change their hue depending on the occasion. Anything is possible, at least theoretically, thanks to these new materials that are being used in tandem with sophisticated electronics.

Prime movers

Smart textiles have also made a big impact on the global business community. Google's own Project Jacquard is a good example of this, where a collaboration with jeans giant Levi went on to it winning the Product Design Grand Prix at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The project helped to develop a fabric woven from conductive thread that effectively turns everyday clothing into an interactive surface.

Meanwhile, alongside its illuminated accessories and premium apparel, German clothing company Moon Berlin has worked with Forster Rohner to produce thermal outerwear, which fuses the natural warming property of something like cashmere with an active heating element powered by a battery pack. Similarly, and closer to home, Nottingham Trent University's Advanced Textile Research Group has teamed up with knitting company Stoll. The collaboration has resulted in the merging of its traditional fabrics with embedded electrical heating elements, NFC chips and even photovoltaic cells in weaved products.

Home grown

A lot of the other research into these weird new materials is happening here in the UK too, with the University of Manchester being perhaps the place with the highest profile. It's known as being the home of super-strength graphene. This remarkable material is 200 times stronger than steel, but incredibly lightweight and flexible. It's also electrically and thermally conductive, while transparent too. Graphene is the world's first 2D material and is one million times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair, according to the University's website dedicated to its amazing properties.

Flexible friend

Battery power is another key sector that is set to develop as time and materials move on and wearables is the obvious area of growth. Panasonic, for example, has already announced a new flexible battery that is adaptable to wearable applications. Interactive electronic textiles could well be the next step, with clothing being infinitely customizable depending on the needs and requirements of the user.

Connected electronic textiles that are personalized or get to know their owner are just one facet of how future materials could be used. It all really comes back to that academic research, which is where the ideas initially germinate, but it can be a further 20 years or so until some of those same ideas come to fruition as off-the-shelf (or off-the-website) products. The 'smart textiles' phrase has been used since the tail-end of the 80s, but it's only now that we're really starting to see some tangible results.

High and dry

Technology company Wearable Experiments, for example, has produced a product that can adjust to the shape and form of your body, perhaps as you perform a workout or other strenuous activity. Multiple sensors in the material allows the garment to effectively become a wireless network for the body and react accordingly. Meanwhile, innovative outfit Threadsmiths have developed a water-repelling t-shirt that never gets wet and banishes stains forever. Elsewhere, materials 'exploration house' the Unseen's colour-changing bags add further evidence that points to a very different way of wearing clothes in the future.

Merging technology

Convergence is where the bigger picture tends to suggest that many of these weird new materials will be used not just for clothing but also in our homes and workplaces, if the latter still exist. Smart homes, for example, filled with even smarter fabrics and furniture could adjust their temperature, change colour to suit new surroundings or adapt to different people using them. Imagine a sofa that always contrasts with your DIY and is perfectly comfortable for anybody who sits on it. Handy eh?

Rob Clymo

Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital, he has run the Innovation channel for a few years at Microsoft, as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of Stuff, TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working, he's usually out and about on one of the numerous e-bikes in his collection.