Forget uncomfortable chest straps or clunky wristbands—thanks to a new innovation in nanotechnology, your t-shirt could one day help monitor your health. Researchers at Rice University created flexible carbon nanotube fibers that can easily be woven into clothing and serve as functional health monitors. The study was featured in the journal Nano Letters.
This new ‘smart thread’ conducts electrical impulses, is durable, and is even machine washable, seamlessly sewn into garments to generate a continuous electrocardiogram readout. The researchers could machine stitch the threads in zig-zag lines across a material, allowing the fabric to stretch and flex without breaking the nanotubes.
These novel sensors have to be placed snugly against the chest to pick up heart rate signals where they also act as electrodes, transmitting the readings wirelessly to a smartphone via Bluetooth. Electrocardiograms, also known as ECGs or EKGs, record electrical signals from the heart to check for the presence of possible heart conditions. In particular, this technique is used to diagnose conditions such as arrhythmias and coronary artery disease.
The nanotubes used in the platform are ultrathin (around the width of a single human hair), forcing the innovators to devise strategies of bundling them together to form strong, rope-like threads. According to one of the lead inventors, Lauren Taylor, the technique they ended up using was inspired by ropes used in model ships.
The nanotube thread’s creators say the innovation paves the way for new possibilities at the intersection of health technology and fashion. “Because of the combination of conductivity, good contact with the skin, biocompatibility, and softness, carbon nanotube threads are a natural component for wearables,” commented Matteo Pasquali, another scientist who worked on the carbon nanotubes.