Smart Shirts

Smart Shirts

Scientists explain how our clothes will soon be able to do much more than just cover our bodies.


9 - 12


Health, Chemistry, Engineering, Physics

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This article was first published May 22, 2013

In the near future, you may choose your wardrobe based on what your clothes can do as much as how they look. Scientists are using nanotechnology—the process of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale—to make clothes that can charge your phone or protect you from toxins.

Such fabrics, seemingly out of science fiction, are being developed at the Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, United States, and the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas.

At Cornell, a student of fiber science Professor Juan Hinestroza created a solar-powered jacket with a USB port that can recharge a cellphone. But the possibilities don’t stop there.

Nanotechnology may allow scientists to create clothing that can react to changes in temperature. Your clothes could actually warm or cool your body.

“The weave pattern can be opened or tightened as a function of temperature,” Hinestroza says, and the fibers can be modified so their physical properties change with temperature.

You could also have a shirt or fabric that can change its look. 

“Color is created by controlling the size of the nanoparticles and the space between them,” Hinestroza says. “Some applications can be found in curtains that change color, giving spaces new meaning every time, as well as interactive camouflage.”

More importantly, nanotechnology could be used to protect our bodies from harmful substances.

“We can also kill bacteria or encapsulate insecticides to eliminate mosquitos or capture smog from the air, or toxic gas in case there is a release of toxic gas,” Hinestroza says.

One particular area of interest for Hinestroza is developing clothing and other textiles that could eliminate the risk of bacterial infections in hospitals.

“Nanoparticles can kill bacteria resistant to antibiotics by interfering with the bacteria’s reproductive mechanisms and penetrating the cellular membranes,” he says.

Nanotech fibers could be embedded in T-shirts to measure the heart rates of individuals with heart conditions. Or sewn into pillows to monitor someone’s brain signals.

“Just think of biometrics,” says Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute, referring to the process of identifying people based on biological characteristics, such as fingerprints. “It’s useful to be able to monitor the vital signs of ordinary people and our soldiers. You can weave into a textile sensors, and antennas for communicating information from these sensors, as well as means to power both by harvesting and storing electrical energy from the environment.”

Textiles embedded with nanotechnology features could also assist the elderly.

“As we get older, some of us become infirm before the day we bite the big bullet,” Baughman says. “Our movements become feeble. It would be very nice to have clothing that senses the feeble movements of an elderly or infirm person and provides mechanical actuation to help that person move.”

Multifunctional Textiles

Hinestroza explains the basic process of integrating nanotechnology into clothing. 

“We modify the surface of the cotton, and then we do chemistry on the surface,” he says. “We don’t change the properties of the fiber—only the surface properties. So it will behave like cotton and bend like cotton. It will provide the comfort of cotton with enhanced properties.”

Yarn with nanotech materials can be mixed together with regular yarn as it is fabricated, Baughman says. “Clothing woven from these yarns can then exploit these new properties for such purposes as sensing, energy harvesting and energy storage.”

These nanotech yarns are multifunctional, he says. “Ordinary fibers for textiles are functional,” he says.

“They provide for the comfort and classical needs of textiles so no one is walking around naked. Now if you are going to have more broadly useful textiles—in the sense of being multifunctional—you need multifunctional yarns that can be woven into a textile.”

Baughman explains the capabilities of these new textiles. 

“For example, in the area of energy harvesting, we would like to have textiles that harvest solar energy and convert it to electrical energy,” he says. “Or textiles that can use the small temperature difference between the body and the outside world to power wireless sensors.”

Currently, the cost of producing some of these items is too expensive to be practical on a large scale. 

“The cost of producing clothing containing solely nanofiber yarns is presently prohibitive,” Baughman says. “However, production costs will decrease as yarn production is up-scaled, and even a small amount of these special yarns can now be sewn into clothing to provide useful performance.”

Fast Fact

Artificial Muscles

Dr. Ray Baughman describes a technology he calls “artificial muscles” that allows clothing to change its characteristics. “It’s a yarn,” he says. “If you heat them up, they contract. Therefore it can lift objects or change the porosity of textiles.”

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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