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Conductive Fibers Form Uniforms of the Future

June 28, 2021
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, polymer fibers were created by evenly flowing silicon chips through a polymer placed in a preform.

The phase “dressed to kill” may soon have a different meaning. Programmable fibers may soon provide military uniforms with the capability to transmit data, arming soldiers with uniforms that can communicate in addition to standard field radio equipment. The programmable fiber, developed at the U.S. Army’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can sense, store, and analyze activity when woven into clothing.

Dr. James Burgess, ISN program manager for the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, known as DEVCOM and the U.S. Army  Research Laboratory (ARL), explained the importance of the new fiber: “This ground-breaking research, with other research underway at the ISN, could revolutionize soldier uniforms.” Burgess added: “We could outfit our soldiers with uniforms that could generate power, given them vital information about their physiology and environmental exposures, provide their location to their team, and alert someone if they incur an injury. All of this could be done with very little increase in weight carried by the soldier.”

This fiber differs from earlier electronic fibers developed for in-field use in that it can carry digital signals whereas earlier fibers were made for continuous, analog electronic signals. To create a polymer fiber (see the figure), the research team placed hundreds of square silicon microscale digital chips into a preform. By controlling the polymer flow the researchers were able to form a fiber with continuous signal path for tens of meters in length. The resulting fiber is thin and flexible enough to pass through a needle and be sewn into fabrics which can be washed multiple times before losing connections.

MIT doctoral student Gabriel Like noted: “When you put the fiber into a shirt, you can’t feel it at all. You wouldn’t know it was there.” The fiber can store as well as communicate data, allowing large files equivalent to short films to be stored on the fiber for two months without power. It can also be used to collect data from a wearer, such as body temperature, for further analysis. The possibilities of applying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) with networked uniforms are also being explored.

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