Monday, July 12, 2010

Textile science: Fibers that can hear and sing...

In the old days making fibers was a relative simple matter, creating yarn and weave them to clothes. But these days are numbered with the emergence of intelligent fibers and textiles. Fiber development migrated in our digital age to electronic laboratories like MIT’s Research Lab of Electronics where Associate professor of Materials Science, Yoel Fink is working on fibers able to pick up sound and to act as speaker. Yoel Fink and his collaborators announced in the August issue of Nature Materials the passing of a new milestone in their development: fibers that can detect and produce sound. The magic element in the new acoustic fiber is a plastic commonly used in microphones, also known as piezoelectric microphone, which means that it changes shape when an electric field is applied to this plastic material. In a fiber microphone, the drawing process would cause the usually used metal electrodes to lose their shape. So the researchers instead used a conducting plastic that contains graphite, the material found in pencil lead. When heated, the conducting plastic maintains a higher viscosity, yielding a thicker fluid than a metal would. This sounds very interesting but keep in mind, it’s not as easy as it reads in this few lines and it will take some time to figure out a way to produce hearing and singing fabrics. Nevertheless, possible applications are already on the radar for the research team, applications ranging from wearable microphones and biological sensors to large-area sonar imaging systems with ultra high resolution: A fabric woven from acoustic fibers would provide the equivalent of millions of tiny acoustic sensors. Another sexy application would be to combine the textile microphone capabilities with color changing fabric technology. The result would be garments that react on surrounding acoustic by altering its colors in sync with natures sound.

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