First, there were smartphones, and now there is the prospect of smart clothing and other materials. According to a paper published on Sciencemag.org, scientists have found a way to manipulate the cells of natural cotton and make it glow in the dark. The implications of this development are startling and could change how we view materials and objects.
Currently, textiles of various kinds use a fiber coating to make “smart” materials. A polymer resin can heal holes in space habitats, and there is carbon infused yarn that can produce electricity. The only problem has been that as the coating wears off, the effectiveness also wears out.
Scientists believe they may have solved the problem by adding the materials directly into the fundamental building blocks – or cells – of these products. The first result is natural glow in the dark cotton. They got this by incorporating fluorescent molecules into the fibers of the plant as it started to grow, so when it reached maturity, they had glow in the dark cotton.
The publishers of the paper also say they have managed to get magnetic properties as well as fluorescent ones by changing the molecular structure.
They found a way to synthesize compounds, which are called glucose derivatives. This acts like a molecular glue that connects the fluorescent molecules to the cells of the cotton fibers while still in the growing plant.
It is even possible they could develop ways to store electronic data in these materials, which could make cloth even smarter, for instance. The scientists chose cotton because of its history, a plant that has been part of the culture for as long as there have been people.
There could eventually be hydroponic greenhouses where materials could be added to the plant’s water container to make smart plants.
This is a new era, called material farming, and it is chemically manipulating a biological system. it has been cotton so far, but it could also be flax or bamboo.
The implication also is that people could eventually be wearing smart textiles. This is a new science though, and the researchers are not sure where it will go. But they have made some interesting discoveries here.
At the very least, we could soon get to where coatings will not just be washed away and become unusable after some use. By genetically changing the structure of the plant, you make a permanent change that will not wash away. That would make it last longer and make it more effective.
At present, there are e-textiles, which are called smart clothing. These are fabrics that have had digital components installed, which is usually batteries or light, embedded in them. This eliminates the need for wires. Some current examples include fabrics that can purify water using the sun as energy. They can also change the temperature, or avoid extremes of temperature for people wearing them. A knitted blood vessel is another example of utilizing textiles.
But there has always been the issue of a coating. Being able to put it deeper into the textile, by growing it inside the plant along with all the other growing parts, would change the whole game.
Scientists expect to find ways to do things more efficiently with this material, but there are also things that have yet to be discovered, or uses for it that have yet to be found.
Smart textiles are not wearable computing. They do not rely on an exterior source the way something you put on a piece of cloth would. Instead, they are embedded into the fabric itself and are part of the fabric.