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Cutting-edge fabric innovation: technology that serves the customer

Features | June 1, 2017 | By:

The cutting edge of fabric innovation—generating energy, stopping bullets, fighting pollution and keeping feet happy at the same time.

Partnering against pollution

didas makes its new company philosophy front and center on its website, stating “We are working with Parley to transform ocean plastic into high-performance sportswear, spinning the problem into a solution. The threat into a thread.” Photos: adidas.

It’s no longer just a prototype: The first adidas running shoe made almost completely out of plastic recovered from the ocean officially launched earlier this year. The company hopes to sell 1 million pairs made from more than 11 million plastic bottles by the end of 2017.

The shoe was created in partnership with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit committed to reducing plastic waste in the oceans. Parley’s website cites recent studies indicating that at least 40 million pounds of plastic have accumulated in the North Pacific Ocean alone. Adidas created the product as a small way to help fix a large problem, but it also represents a loftier goal: to eliminate virgin plastic from its supply chain altogether.

Innovation is not only the focus of the shoe but also of a new corporate strategy. As stated on its website, “This is just one part of our work. As a founding member, adidas supports Parley in communication, education, research and development, direct action, and eco-innovation. Our ocean plastic program is led by the Parley A.I.R. Strategy to avoid virgin plastic, intercept plastic waste and, ultimately, to redesign new alternatives because we’re in this for good.”

In line with this new strategy, the partners again teamed up to create a swimwear line made from upcycled fishing nets and debris. The ocean plastic is converted into a technical yarn fiber named Econyl®, which offers the same properties as nylon.

A medication plan on hand

University of Rhode Island Professor Kunal Mankodiya (center) and his students are working on several projects focused on developing tools to image, sense and record brain function to treat other neurological diseases, such as epilepsy. In addition, Mankodiya is partnering with Lifespan Hospitals to create smartwatch technologies for patients with psychiatric illnesses and autism. Photo: Michael Salerno Photography.

A University of Rhode Island (URI) biomedical engineering professor and his students have developed a high-tech, textile-based product to solve two major challenges facing Parkinson’s patients and their doctors.

To prescribe an effective medication plan, doctors need specific information directly from their patients. However, people with Parkinson’s disease struggle with mobility issues, including driving, which can make traveling to a doctor’s appointment a nightmare. To help patients avoid a stressful clinic visit but still allow doctors to make an informed plan, the URI team developed gloves embedded with sensors on the fingers and thumb that measure tremors and rigidity—common symptoms of Parkinson’s. The gloves are connected to cellphones, which process the data and deliver it to neurologists’ offices so they can ensure medication is working properly.

The glove is not the first “smart” product created by this team. Professor Kunal Mankodiya has been working with students on smart wearables for years as they research the internet of things, a framework to automate human interactions with cloud computing. Textiles often play an important role in the development of these products. For example, Mankodiya is also working on high-tech socks for people who have suffered strokes. Like the glove, the socks have sensors and software woven into the fabric that relay information to others—in this case, to doctors and physical therapists about a patient’s gait,—so they can create tailored rehabilitation therapy plans. The socks examine the walking stride to quantify movements of the knee and ankle joints to identify subtle irregularities that require therapy. They also monitor the wearer’s progress.

Powered by polymers

The ElectriciTree researchers (from left: Curtis Mosher, Eric Henderson, Mike McCloskey) published their findings in January in the peer-reviewed academic journal PLOS ONE, in which they report that an earlier version of the device had larger blades but produced much less power than the smaller device. Photos: Christopher Gannon.

Using Tyvek® and a laser cutter, Iowa State University scientists have designed a new path of exploration into future wind energy generation. Inspired by the fluttering movement of cottonwood tree leaves, they created a device—dubbed the ElectriciTree—that mimics the tree’s branches and leaves, and generates electricity when its artificial leaves sway in the wind. “We set out to answer the question of whether you can get useful amounts of electrical power out of something that looks like a plant,” according to a statement released by Michael McCloskey, who led the design of the device. “The answer is ‘possibly,’ but the idea will require further development.”

Small, flexible polymer strips inside leaf stalks made of a laminated polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF) element release an electrical charge when they’re bent by moving air. This process is known as a piezoelectric effect. Cottonwood leaves were modeled because their flattened leaf stalks require blades to oscillate in a regular pattern that optimizes energy generation. Made of 160 micrometer Tyvek, the leaf blades were created on a laser cutter programmed with an authentic cottonwood leaf template. Many materials were tested, but Tyvek and PVDF allowed the most consistent side-to-side motion of the stalk at low wind speeds.

This focus on harvesting regular motions found in nature—an approach called biomimetics—is becoming more common in research and experimentation in fields ranging from cell biology to sports and exercise equipment design to architecture. The piezoelectric effect approach used for the ElectriciTree does not create a very strong current, but the device has the potential to power household items such as lightbulbs or vacuums. And a larger version of the device, containing thousands of leaves, could open up a whole new world of power possibilities.

A layered approach to safety

Researchers believe the foldable barrier could also be used to protect a wounded person or children in a school during an emergency situation. Photos: BYU.

Within just seconds, SWAT teams, police officers and other law enforcement workers are often put in life-threatening circumstances. Protection is needed instantly in these situations, yet shields and other barriers currently used to block gunfire are heavy and cumbersome, making it difficult for officers to move into position in a timely manner.

This is what Brigham Young University (BYU) engineering researchers recently discovered as they worked with a federal special agent to understand officers’ needs. Their research led to the creation of an origami-inspired, lightweight bulletproof shield that can be folded compactly when not in use, making it easy to transport and deploy. It can be expanded in five seconds to provide cover for officers and stop bullets from several types of handguns. In testing, the barrier successfully stopped bullets from 9 mm, .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum pistols.

The shield comprises 12 layers of bulletproof Kevlar® and weighs 55 pounds—nearly half the weight of steel-based barriers currently in use. Though it’s built to be stiff, the flexible properties of Kevlar are what allow the barrier to be folded. The BYU researchers used a Yoshimura origami crease pattern to design it to expand around an officer, providing protection on the side as well as the front. Because Kevlar fabric is subject to fraying and abrasion, and is sensitive to sunlight and water, the team also made a concentrated effort to reinforce it against environmental stresses.

A new spin on spider silk

Biomimetic spinning of artificial spider silk. A.) spider silk protein solution in a syringe is pumped through a pulled glass capillary with the tip submerged into a low pH collection bath. Fibers can be taken from the bath and rolled onto frames. B.) fiber spun in the lop pH collection bath. C.) wet fiber nest in low pH buffer. D.) as-spun fibers on a frame. Photos: A, B, D: Marlene Andersson, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences/Nature Chemical Biology; C: Lena Holm, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences/Nature Chemical Biology.

Continuing the trend to mimic nature’s processes with technology, Swedish scientists have claimed to achieve the coveted success of producing artificial spider silk.

Many factors contribute to the material’s appeal: It’s tolerated well when implanted in tissues, is lightweight but stronger than steel, and is also biodegradable. Spider silk is made of proteins stored as an aqueous solution in silk glands before they’re spun into a fiber. A well-regulated pH gradient inside the glands ensures that the fiber forms quickly in a defined place of the silk production apparatus. However, because spiders spin small amounts of silk and are difficult to keep in captivity, large-scale production requires artificial silk proteins and spinning processes.

Prior attempts at this involved harsh chemicals and resulted in fibers of limited use. But a research team from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Karolinska Institutet has developed a method that works, reporting that it can produce kilometer-long threads that—for the first time—resemble real spider silk.

To mimic a product of nature, the natural process should also be imitated. But until the Swedish team’s discovery, this was not possible because of the difficulty of obtaining water-soluble spider silk proteins from bacteria and other production systems. This is why strong solvents were used.

Applying its knowledge of the regulated pH gradient, the team recreated a protein that can be produced in large quantities in bacteria, which makes the production scalable. This artificial protein is as water soluble as the natural spider silk proteins, which means it’s possible to keep the proteins soluble at extreme concentrations, explains Dr. Anna Rising, a research team member. To mimic the spider silk gland, she and her colleagues constructed a simple spinning apparatus that allows them to spin kilometer-long fibers by lowering the pH. The full results were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Vested in data

In&motion landed a second CES Innovation Award for its airbag technology in 2017. The annual competition honors outstanding design and engineering in consumer technology products. Photos: In&motion.

New products originate from an intention to benefit consumers—whether it’s to protect them or make their lives easier. Once development begins, however, many companies leave consumers out of the process, missing the opportunity to receive valuable feedback from the very market they plan to target.

Luckily for motorcyclists, this is not the case with French startup In&motion, a manufacturer of smart, wearable protection systems that launched its first product in 2015: an airbag vest for skiers that measures movement in real time and anticipates falls in order to activate before impact. The vest received several awards, including a CES Innovation Award and an ISPO (International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics) Gold Award.

Last summer, In&motion teamed up with motorcycle apparel manufacturer Ixon to create an alpha version of its airbag vest geared toward protecting the vulnerable areas of motorcyclists, such as the thorax, shoulders and back. The vest features an integrated, certified back protector and can be worn autonomously under any jacket—no associated cable on the motorbike is required. The back protector holds removable electronic sensors that analyze the wearer’s movements to detect a crash. In real time, it can identify serious falls to trigger the inflation of the airbag in less than one-tenth of a second, absorbing shock energy while limiting trauma to the wearer’s spine and vital organs.

Though MotoGP professionals, including Bradley Smith of the Monster Yamaha Tech3 team, were involved in the vest’s conception—and even wore the alpha version during the 2016 season to help the development team capture movement data—In&motion has brought consumer data gathering to another level as it prepares to launch a retail version and eventually expand the technology into more markets.

In late 2016, the company launched the AirbagRevolution campaign, inviting motorcyclists of all levels, and in any location, to register to participate in further development of the vest. This past spring, the first 500 selected registrants were given a free airbag vest and 180 days to use the system and provide honest feedback. Remi Thomas, In&motion CEO, released a statement explaining the reason behind the campaign: “We really want to integrate ideas, comments or suggestions from our future users. The goal is to offer a product conceived for and by bikers. How? By leading a revolution; 500 selected riders will be involved and will take part in this adventure.” 

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