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Could cellulose change the way electronic textiles are made?

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The breakthrough could open the door to more a more innovations using electronic textiles

A university team has hailed a new breakthrough in the fast changing world of electronic textiles.

E-textiles are fabrics that allow digital components such as a battery or a light to be embedded in them.

‘Smart’ textiles could have huge opportunities in the healthcare sector but need to be sustainable.

A team of researchers from Sweden have developed a thread made of conductive cellulose which can be used in e-textiles.

“Miniature, wearable, electronic gadgets are ever more common in our daily lives. But currently, they are often dependent on rare, or in some cases toxic, materials.

“They are also leading to a gradual build-up of great mountains of electronic waste. There is a real need for organic, renewable materials for use in electronic textiles,” said Sozan Darabi, doctoral student at Chalmers University of Technology.

He and researcher Anja Und have worked with electrically conductive fibres for electronic textiles for several years.

They previously worked with silk but switched to concentrate on cellulose.

The results show cellulose thread offers potential as a material for electronic textiles and can be used in many different ways.

Sewing the electrically conductive cellulose threads into a fabric using a standard household sewing machine, the researchers have produced a thermoelectric textile that produces a small amount of electricity when it is heated on one side – for example, by a person’s body heat. At a temperature difference of 37 degrees Celsius, the textile can generate around 0.2 microwatts of electricity.

“This cellulose thread could lead to garments with built-in electronic, smart functions, made from non-toxic, renewable and natural materials,” said Sozan.

The production process for the cellulose thread has been developed by co-authors from Aalto University in Finland.

The Chalmers researchers made the thread conductive by dyeing it with an electrically conductive polymeric material.

The measurements show that the dyeing process gives the cellulose thread a record-high conductivity – which can be increased even further through the addition of silver nanowires. In tests, the conductivity was maintained after several washes.

Electronic textiles could be used in healthcare, where functions such as regulating, monitoring, and measuring various health metrics could be hugely beneficial.

In the wider textile industry, where conversion to sustainable raw materials is an ongoing question, natural materials and fibres have become an increasingly common choice to replace synthetics. Electrically conductive cellulose threads could have a significant role to play here too, the researchers say.

“Cellulose is a fantastic material that can be sustainably extracted and recycled, and we will see it used more and more in the future. And when products are made of uniform material, or as few materials as possible, the recycling process becomes much easier and more effective.

This is another perspective from which cellulose thread is very promising for the development of e-textiles,” said Christian Müller, a professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology.

This work of the research team from Chalmers is performed in the national research center Wallenberg Wood Science Center, in cooperation with colleagues in Sweden, Finland and South Korea.

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