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Can you imagine if your clothes were capable of letting you know that you are unwell? This is something that could become a possibility very soon, thanks to Dr. Jessica Wade, a research associate at Imperial College London’s Faculty of Natural Sciences. She is determined to make our passive clothes a thing of the past by rapidly accelerating a new generation of smart garments.

It’s All In The Sweat

Dr. Wade has predicted that within ten years, our clothes will most likely be woven with “responsive material” which in turn will give the wearer superpowers that will alert them when they are getting ill. The “Mood-changing” technology works by analyzing the wearer’s sweat which results in changing colour in response to changes in electrical conductivity of the wearer’s skin.

The researchers behind the technology can foresee their innovation helping wearers manage diseases such as diabetes, due to the sensors picking up the wearer’s high glucose levels. Dr. Wade said: “When our clothes are adaptable, it will increase the value we get from them, they will do more for you.”

Developed to change colour to alert the wearer when they are feeling unwell, Dr. Wade, alongside other researchers, is also working on smart clothes with graphene integrated into thread. Those familiar with graphene know that graphene inks can be used in textiles to store electrical charges and “release it when required.” Therefore, by using graphene, the garment becomes a rechargeable power supply that can recharge phones through solar panels and conductive fibres in the fabric.

When it comes to challenges, there are a few, including being able to withstand multiple washes. That being said, Dr. Wade believes that consumers are likely to be persuaded by the technological and environmental advantages offered by such a garment. She believes that consumers would prefer to “own a garment that has multiple uses and lasts for a long time, rather than “fast fashion” which becomes worn after a few months.”

Dr. Wade is not the only person looking to use advanced technology to provide real-time information using the sweat to analyze the wearer’s health or fitness.  Delivered in a battery-free and wireless form the soft device uses electric sensors to read chemicals, and it also relies on colorimetrics. John Rogers, a biomedical engineer at Northwestern University and the principal architect of the invention said:  “It fits into a broader trend that you see in medicine, which is personalised, tailored approaches to treatment and delivery of care.” 

When it comes to how it works, the standout idea has been designed with very small holes at its base into which sweat naturally flows.  The device has a sensor that reacts with a chemical in the sweat which enters the device through microscopic holes and flows through a network of microchannels, each the width of a hair. The sensors detect specific chemicals such as glucose and lactate. Martin Kaltenbrunner, an engineering professor at Austrian university Johannes Kepler, said: “The level of technology that is in this paper is very, very advanced,” said, in Austria.

Relying on the same technology that smartphones use to send wireless payments, the waterproof device downfall is that it will fill up with sweat, which brings up the question of hygiene.  That issue aside Dr. Rogers’s team hopes to manufacture a product at a low cost that will transform health care. Dr. Rogers is also working with collaborators to develop sensors for urea and creatinine, which are indicators of how well the kidneys are functioning, and to chart the progress of people undergoing rehabilitation after a stroke. 

I do think that the advances in technology will most likely send today’s fitness trackers to their grave in favour of a device that is capable of picking up a person’s underlying biology. I think such technology could be vital for premature babies and the elderly. Dr. Kaltenbrunner said. “But it just means wearing a patch and being able to self-monitor me, then eventually this barrier will be reduced.”

In the end,  the adoption of an innovation that uses sweat to let you know about your health is also going to bring about big data for human health. That being said, I am looking forward to being introduced to a range of products that will be based on the nature of people’s sweat.

Written by Muchaneta Kapfunde

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Category(s): Blog