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Could Ohio State University's super thin woven circuitry usher in a new era for wearable tech?

When it comes to wearable tech, the general consensus is that in order to succeed, wearables will have to fall more in the category of tech-enabled fashion than inconvenient gadgets you reluctantly attach to your body. That’s why a team of researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) developed electronic circuitry as thin as a regular thread, and are using it to make smart textiles. The team’s delicate textile circuits could usher in the future of smart jeans, antenna-packing sweaters, or even fitness-tracking workout clothes.

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John Volakis and Asimina Kiourti have been refining the e-textile technology through many versions at the ElectroScience Laboratory at OSU. Their newest accomplishment is a silver-coated polymer thread that is 0.1 millimeter thick, made with seven filaments twisted into a single strand. Made of copper and pure silver, the threads can be used to make extremely fine and detailed circuit boards that can do everything clunky hardware circuitry normally takes care of.

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Because the extremely thin polymer allows for high-level precision, Volakis and Kiourti can create circuits in any shape, to serve virtually any basic electrical function. Using a standard tabletop sewing machine, the researchers embroider shapes with the metal wire in much the same way a hand-stitch hobbyist might embroider cloth. To create a broadband antenna, the wire is used to embroider a series of tiny interlocking geometric shapes. The antenna measures just a few inches across when it is finished, but it covers a spectrum of frequencies that allow for the broadband capacity that might support a cell network or Internet connection.

Kiourti estimates that a single broadband antenna costs about 30 cents in material costs, which is 24 times less than the 2014 version of the technology. Bringing the cost down was one of the researchers’ main goals in perfecting the tech, alongside limiting production time. Using this newest 0.1 millimeter polymer, it only takes about 15 minutes to create a fully functional broadband antenna. In testing phases, the team’s six-inch spiral antenna transmitted frequencies from 1 to 5 GHz almost perfectly.

Solutions like the embroidered broadband antenna would let designers and technologists turn regular textiles into communication boosters. But with the newest version of the polymer, the possibilities for use are endless. Embroidered clothing could be used to improve cell phone reception or Internet connectivity, for example. The OSU team has also created prototypes that use the polymer in high-tech tire manufacturing and other industrial applications. In the future, they hope it will even be used in medical solutions like diagnostic tools and brain sensor implants.