A Quest to Discover Responsive and Adaptive Textiles

The human identity stands upon a host of unique traits, but at the same time, none define it better than our tendency to improve at a consistent pace. We say this because the stated tendency has already fetched the world some huge milestones, with technology emerging as quite a major member of the group. The reason why we hold technology in such a high regard is, by and large, predicated upon its skill-set, which guided us towards a reality that nobody could have ever imagined otherwise. Nevertheless, if we look beyond the surface for one hot second, it will become clear how the whole runner was also very much inspired from the way we applied those skills across a real world environment. The latter component, in fact, did a lot to give the creation a spectrum-wide presence, and as a result, initiated a full-blown tech revolution. Of course, the next thing this revolution did was to scale up the human experience through some outright unique avenues, but even after achieving a feat so notable, technology will somehow continue to bring forth the right goods. The same has turned more and more evident in recent times, and assuming one new discovery ends up with the desired impact, it will only put that trend on a higher pedestal moving forward.

The researching team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has successfully developed an actuating fiber, which comes decked with an ability to morph as per the surrounding conditions. Named FibeRobo, the stated fiber iteration can contract in response to an increase in temperature, and whenever the weather is on the colder side, it can seamlessly expand to provide the required insulation. In order to understand the significance of such a development, we must acknowledge the problems plaguing all those previous shape-changing fibers that tried but failed to become a part of the wider textile industry. A fitting example would be one particular fiber which could only contract about 5%, and we haven’t even mentioned how it had no self-reverse capabilities. If that wasn’t bad enough, it would also stop working after just a few actuations. Joining the stated material is a McKibban actuator, an economically unviable fiber due to the fact that it was pneumatically driven and required an air compressor to actuate. So, how did the MIT researchers overcame this seemingly insurmountable challenge? Well, they placed their bets on an element known as liquid crystal elastomer (LCE). In case you aren’t aware, a liquid crystal is a series of molecules that can flow like liquid, but when those molecules are allowed to settle, they can also stack into a periodic crystal arrangement. The researching team took the stated crystal arrangement and embedded it into an elastomer network, which is stretchy like a rubber band. Once you heat the LCE material, crystal molecules fall out of alignment and pull the elastomer network together, causing the fiber to contract. On the other hand, in an event where you remove the heat, the molecules return to their original alignment, and the material to its original length. Talk about the whole process on a slightly deeper level, it banks upon a machine which uses 3D-printed and laser-cut parts, alongside basic electronics. At the beginning, you are to increase the temperature around the thick and viscous LCE resin. Next up, this resin is squeezed through a nozzle like that of a glue gun. As it emerges from the nozzle, it is cured carefully using UV lights shining on both sides of the slowly extruding fiber. This is a particularly complicated step, because assuming the light is too dim, the material will separate and drip out of the machine. However, if it is also a tad too bright, then it will effectively birth these clumps that translate to bumpy fibers. Anyway, now it’s time to dip the material within oil to give it a slippery coating before curing it again with UV lights, this time they must be used at full blast. The last step is to collect the fiber in a top spool and douse powder so to make sure it will slide easily into machines for textile manufacturing. All in all, the process takes around one whole day to complete.

“We use textiles for everything. We make planes with fiber-reinforced composites, we cover the International Space Station with a radiation-shielding fabric, we use them for personal expression and performance wear. So much of our environment is adaptive and responsive, but the one thing that needs to be the most adaptive and responsive—textiles—is completely inert,” said Jack Forman, a graduate student in the Tangible Media Group, and lead author of a paper on the actuating fiber.

A detail worth noting in the context of FibeRobo is how it is compatible with a range of textile manufacturing techniques, including weaving looms, embroidery, industrial knitting machines, and more. Furthermore, it can be produced continuously by the kilometer. Given such an expansive nature of it, designers can seamlessly incorporate actuation and sensing capabilities into various fabrics for applications as sensitive as programmable compression garments that could aid in post-surgery recovery. The material can also be used in conjunction with a conductive thread, which acts as a heating element when electric current runs through it. This, like you can guess, hands us a user digital control over a textile’s form.

In terms of numbers, initial tests have shown that FibeRobo can contract up to 40% without bending, actuate at skin-safe temperatures, and be produced with a low-cost setup for 20 cents per meter. The last bit is significant because it marks a figure 60 times cheaper than commercially available shape-changing fibers.

For the immediate future, the researchers’ plan is to adjust the fiber’s chemical components so it can become recyclable or biodegradable. Apart from that, they would also like to streamline the entire polymer synthesis process, thus allowing users with no wet lab expertise whatsoever to make the material on their own.

“LCE fibers come to life when integrated into functional textiles. It is particularly fascinating to observe how the authors have explored creative textile designs using a variety of weaving and knitting patterns,” said Lining Yao, the Cooper-Siegel Associate Professor of Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved with this work.

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