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New Touch-Sensitive Fibre For Clothes

15 Apr, 2017
New touch -sensitive fibre to be introduced in electronic interface

Touch has been one of the reasons that we switched from QWERTY keyboard-enabled phones to touchscreen phones – because touch is the most native way in which we can interact with electronics and screens.

Yet, touch has it’s own issues – wet hands, different pressures, and most importantly, the need for a screen for us to touch, to provide instructions. Sure, voice and gesture-based controls exist, but they aren’t ubiquitous yet (least of all with accents that the Western-world-designed voice recognition tools just don’t seem to understand).

So, for the wheel of technology to roll into the next evolution and for other objects to become “smart”, there is a need to engage better with touch-based interfaces.

Researchers from the North Carolina State University have developed a new material – elastic touch sensitive fibres that can improve the device experience and spread it across different interfaces.

A paper published by Michael Dickey, a Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State University states that these soft, stretchable, microscopic fibres are able to detect touch as well as interpret pressures such as strain and twisting.

These fibres are composited of cylindrical polymer strands that are filled with a liquid metal alloy. The alloy itself consists of eutectic gallium and indium (EGaIn).
The thickness of the fibres is highly microscopic – a few hundred microns in diameter – which is comparable to a human hair.

The size help in integrating them with electronics which are unconventionally placed and liable to be malleable and amenable to the stress of daily wear and tear – such as wearable devices.

How are these fibres used?

Well, they are usually twisted together to form a spiral. Each fibre consists of just three strands, each with a differing density of EGaln – one is completely filled with EGaln, another filled only about two-thirds, and the last being only one-third filled.

Like with regular screens, Capacitance enables this fibre’s capabilities.
You might remember this from you high school science textbooks – an electric charge is stored between two conductors, which are in turn separated by an insulator.

Regular glass-based screens work the same way – when you touch the bottom of your touchscreen, the capacitance which is between your finger and the material beneath the screen gets affected – and the screen interprets your intentions from your actions basis this change in capacitance.

Imagine this technology being woven into the fabric of your shirt… You could give commands to your smartphone by simply touching the collar of your shirt, or touch your cuff to call someone, while tapping the pocket might issue a different action. Sounds awesome, no?

We still don’t know about the University’s plans for this technology yet, and we also estimate that it will still take more some time for this budding technology to be incorporated into washable fabrics.

The research doesn’t end just here. The researchers have developed a sensor using two polymer strands-each of them are completely filled with EGaln.
Just like others, these threads are twisted into a spiral, so when you increase the number of twists, the tubes get closer. The capacitance between the two threads is thus affected, giving a notation on the change.

According to Dickey, they can tell the number of times the fiber has been twisted, just by the change in capacitance – “That’s valuable for use in torsion sensors, which measure how many times, and how quickly, something revolves. The advantage of our sensor is that it is built from elastic materials and can, therefore, be twisted 100 times more — two orders of magnitude — than existing torsion sensors”.

Well, there are bound to be lots of applications for this revolutionary technology – think of communiction, control, emergency services and something as simple as opening your door – the opportunities are limitless.

Time is of the essence though, as newer and more complicated technologies may wrest some of the opportunities for this new fibre.