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What the well-gadgeted man is wearing

Fans of P. G. Wodehouse will remember how the hero Bertie Wooster was persuaded by his aunt Dahlia to write a piece on ‘what the well dressed man is wearing’ for her weekly magazine “Milady’s Boudoir”. That was in the 1920s and the days of gentlemen of leisure. A century later, these are the days of gentlemen (and ladies) on the go. And the biweekly magazine “Science News” has published an article called: “Fashion forward: Advanced textiles may add serious gadgetry to clothes”, authored by Maria Temming and Mariah Quantanilla, in its May 25, 2018 issue.

The two authors, Maria and Mariah, write about how future ‘smart’ clothes could pack ‘serious’ gadgetry, and give a few examples presented by several developers and innovators at some recent technological meetings in the US. Here are some excerpts from this article.

Clothes that change colour

About sixty or seventy years ago, one could buy a shirt made of a cloth teasingly called ‘Bleeding Madras’. It would change colour upon each wash (and fade!). The one discussed here changes colour not upon washing, but reversibly upon exposure to light (such as sunlight or on stage), when the wearer taps his/her smartphone screen. How does this happen? The fabric is made of thin yarn containing some thinner strands of copper wire sheathed in polyester (or nylon). This polyester fibre is coated with pigments just as normal clothes are. A garment is made of this pigmented cloth, and the garment also carries a tiny battery. The wearer sends a wi-fi signal from his/her smartphone, which activates the battery to heat the copper wire in the yarn. With that signal, the colour changes and the wearer now shows off the new colour (or stripe or pattern – whatever has been built in) on his/her garment! Developed by Dr. Joshua Kaufman and Dr. Ayman Abouraddy of the University of Central Florida at Orlando, FL, USA, this fabric and the clothes, bags or upholstery will hit the market soon.

After a brisk run, you feel hot — the active motion generating thermal energy. Likewise, as you stand for a while in bright sunlight, you feel warm. Rather than lose energy through heat this way, can we convert heat or body motion into electricity? This was the question that Dr. Jun Chen and Dr. Zhong Lin Wang of Stanford and Georgia Tech Universities attempted to work on. To this end, they threaded a fabric with photovoltaic wires which, when sunlight falls on them, generate tiny amounts of electricity just the way traditional solar cells do. And this energy can be stored safely in a small battery attached to the garment. Dr. Chen is reported to have said that a 4 cm x 5 cm piece of such a solar cell fabric stitched on to your T-shirt as you run in the sun can charge up your cellphone. Imagine wearing a whole shirt or a jacket made of such a fabric.

Dr. Chen has also devised a fabric made of a special type of polymer (called PTFE) which captures energy coming out of motion (movement of the body) and converts it into electrical energy. Maria and Mariah write: “this energy-harvesting material could also be built into tents that, when bathed in sun or rustled by wind, could charge campers’ devices”. The article by these two ladies, titled: “Future smart clothes could pack serious gadgetry”, is available free on the net, and is recommended. It covers a few more such studies which focus on capturing energy from the environment through the use of devices of this kind, and converting it into storable and usable electric energy.

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