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Future applications for flexible composites

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Smart phones may be all the rage on the street, but in the lab—certainly at North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles, anyway—smart fabrics rule.

Professor Tushar Ghosh, textile technology program director, foresees a multitude of possible applications for flexible composites that go beyond what is on the market today. The next generation of fabrics could bring revolutionary impacts to life as we know it.

“We are creating soft composites—flexible, elastomeric composites—that would have electrical behaviors such that we can use it for communication in lots of applications,” Ghosh says. For example, an elastomeric composite could incorporate sensors to measure temperature, pressure, stress and strain. In fact, Ghosh says, those capabilities could be incorporated by a process as established as screenprinting. Ghosh, whose current research projects are being funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Commerce, is working on creating fabrics powered by circuits using flexible composites based on woven fabrics used by the U.S. Army, such as nylon and cotton.

“Potentially this material could be used for antennas, and there are many other applications, such as electrodes to pick up electrical signals for the human body,” Ghosh says. “You can create devices using these materials for vital-sign monitoring. There are many, many applications.”

Another of Ghosh’s projects involves creating flexible composites that can be used for electrical actuation of fibers. “You can create human-assistance devices,” he says, suggesting the therapeutic, nonbiological stimulation of muscles. “If you think big,” he adds, “it could be used for a flying object. You can create devices that would replace a lot of electrical motors and pneumatics and hydraulic devices.”

Ghosh views fabric as a “carrier” material for monitoring in tents, awnings and other fabric-based products.

“Another area that’s promising and growing is health monitoring built into garments,” he says.

He acknowledges the challenges. “One thing that really would help is to get designs out of the lab,” he says. “It will take a while before one could pick up technologies and apply it in a small company. Right now, it’s still taking some time for advances to get to the point that you can have a product.”

He also recognizes the particular challenges facing small companies without R & D departments, but urges them to keep up with what’s going on. “One thing that’s extremely important is we sit in labs. We really do not have a very good idea about the demand in the market, so interaction between small companies and universities would be most welcome.

“There are various federal programs that promote that interaction that small companies may not be aware of,” Ghosh notes. “Know what is going on. It would be mutually beneficial. That’s very important.”

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