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There are numerous definitions where Smart Textiles are concerned. Two of them – which can be found in famous dictionaries – should provide at least a rough overview:
Dictionary "Technical Textiles", Deutscher Fachverlag 2009
"In the strict sense, a collective term for textiles that are equipped with intelligent electronic systems, e.g. clothing with integrated pulse measuring equipment. In a broader sense, textiles that act intelligently by means of non-electronic systems, e.g. those equipped with phase change materials."
Chemnitz Industrial Museum Dictionary, Chemnitz Technical University
"Smart Textiles are textiles which react to, or interact with, certain environmental influences with a measured and sensible change in their properties. These reactions can include the flow of electricity, light, heat and participles and lead to changes in the textile's color, permeability, porosity, rigidity, shape or size."
"Intelligent Textiles" versus "Smart Fabrics"
Smart Textiles can be subdivided into the categories "Intelligent Textiles" (i.e. "interactive textiles") and "Smart Fabrics" (i.e. "intelligent textiles").
Interactive textiles detect input in the form of sensor data or receiver equipment – just like radio antennas. By means of a switching logic, they process the input and generate output. This output could then be displayed on a screen, transmitted to neighboring devices via transmitters, or also utilized for controlling motors.
The second category, intelligent textiles, reacts to a previously determined environmental influence without this switching logic, and utilizes such processes as chemical reactions.
Three integration levels
In addition to the five levels of intelligence displayed above, Smart Textiles are also differentiated by their respective development stage or so-called 'integration level':
- Adaptation: Electronic elements are installed in tunnels, loops, etc. – and connected and detached from the textile via buttons or plug connectors.
- Integration: The system components are firmly embedded or worked into the textile. Sample applications here include textile operating elements, and woven or printed conducting paths.
- Combination/textile solution: Integration on the fiber/yarn level. Fibers, yarn or flat surfaces themselves act as the electronic components. One example here: textile batteries, where the fibers have a special coating.
Real highlights in automobiles
Examples of Smart Textiles on the "Adaptation" and "Integration" levels range from heatable gloves or underwear to apparel with an airbag function – e.g. for motorcyclists.
One highly exclusive example is the "starry sky" inside the new Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé. Hundreds of tiny LEDs integrated into the textile roof of the car create a miniature firmament – which can even be dimmed.
In the near future, textiles with alarm functions to prevent theft and textile solar cells – for truck tarps, for instance, or sun-blinds – will also be appearing on the market.
Innovations with their precedents in nature
Smart Textiles on the "Combination/textile solution" level have also found numerous areas of application in recent years. Thanks to the natural precedent of the Darkling Beetle, for example, they ensure that aerosols can be collected inside fog collectors and that the water this produces can be removed. These textile fog collectors can extract up to 55 liters of water per square meter of fabric every day.
Also based on nature are the self-cleaning textiles with the "lotus effect" – so-called "CoolMax®" textiles. Their fiber structure is modeled after the fur of the polar bear. Each individual fiber is hollow inside and permeable to radiation, so that the heat is directed straight to the textile wearer. The more air trapped, the more efficient the heat storage effect. The surface of CoolMax®-fibers is around 25 percent larger than that of conventional fibers!
Discover more about the amazing technologies and functions involved in Smart Textiles in further articles from the Groz-Beckert Online Newsletter!