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Will smart fibers create smarter clothes?

Posting in Design

Watch the history of smart fibers. MIT researcher Yoel Fink is making fibers into electronics. It is already being used in surgery. In the future, fabrics will be able to see, smell, and communicate.

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MIT researcher Yoel Fink thinks his fibers are knock your socks off beautiful. And they are. If you think about it, fibers are interesting structures. We use them in our clothes, but lets face it, they haven’t changed much over the last thousands of years.

Fink is making fibers with electronic properties. Imagine if your clothes could record your surroundings, could hear your heart beat, or create energy from movement. We are in for a fiber revolution.

One of the first uses of these new generation fibers are in the field of medical surgery. Here you see doctors performing precise laser surgery. The fibers they are using are fibers originally created in Fink’s lab. The fibers let laser light reach remote parts of the body and can get hard to reach places like your spinal cord or brain.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The idea of creating fibers that could act like electronic devices had humble beginnings when Fink was a graduate student. He was part of a team that created the first omnidirectional mirror. This amazing feat allows you to trap light: for example if this type of mirror lines walls, light would stay in the room. That’s still the stuff of science fiction, but the mirror idea did lead to the very practical creation of hollow fibers for precision surgery.

In 2002, Fink showed that the high efficiency mirror could be made into a thin and slender fiber for reflection and transmission purposes.

The process of making fibers is quite surprising, kind of like the movie, “Honey, I shrunk The Kids.” Fink took a large rod. He called this a preform and it is an exact scaled up model of the fiber. This is where the magic comes in. Fink put it in a furnace, then pulls on it, and out comes a fiber.

The preform is solid, and when it gets heated it doesn't become completely turn into a liquid, it becomes soft like caramel, and then solidifies into a fiber.

The surprising thing is that the fiber looks exactly like the original preform. The only thing now, it’s flexible and long and can do interesting stuff.

These early multimaterial fibers had multiple thin alternating layers of a semiconductor and an insulator arranged around a hollow core. Each layer is a fraction of a wavelength in thickness.

But in order to make more sophisticated devices like computers and iPhones, another material was needed. They needed metal. If one could succeed in combining all three categories of materials: insulator, conductor, and semiconductor fibers could begin to take on a totally new and exciting role.

So in 2004, the researchers discovered how to do that and created the world’s first metal insulator semiconductor fiber device that was designed to detect and analyze light.

What makes fibers so interesting is that they can be arranged in 3-D. What would happen if many fibers each capable of detecting light would be put together? In 2006, Fink discovered how constructs made of fibers could extract meaningful optical information and be used to figure out where light is coming from.

But aren’t fibers typically found in fabrics? And if so what interesting properties would fabrics that were made of photodetecting fibers have? In 2009, Fink discovered how to make the fabrics that function like a camera. It’s basically a fabric that can see.

Hey, it’s not as good as an iPhone camera, but it can see much further than your shirt can. Fibers are much more robust than a camera.

Recently, the researchers discovered how to make the fibers produce sound.

Fibers like that can be used to for sensing underwater currents. If used in clothes, it can measure your heart rate or let you know if you are having a blood clot.

Fink’s lab at MIT is creating fibers that have optical, electronic and acoustic properties. If Fink has his way, it won’t be long before fibers can record images, sounds, and produce energy. The fabrics can see, hear, sense and communicate and take on the very characteristics our electronic devices have.

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure