Lasers used to fabricate waterproof smart fabrics in minutes

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Scientists have developed a cost-efficient and scalable method of rapidly fabricating textiles embedded with energy storage devices using lasers.

The method, described in Scientific Reports, enables graphene supercapacitors – powerful and long-lasting energy storage devices that are easily combined with solar or other sources of power – to be laser printed directly onto textiles.

It can produce a 10x10cm smart textile patch that’s waterproof, stretchable and readily integrated with energy harvesting technologies, in just three minutes.

Smart textiles offer features such as built-in sensing, wireless communication or health monitoring technology. They could enable a diverse range of applications in wearable devices for the consumer, health care and defence sectors – from monitoring vital signs of patients, to tracking the location and health status of soldiers in the field, and monitoring pilots or drivers for fatigue.

Producing such textiles however requires robust and reliable energy solutions, according to Dr Litty Thekkakara, one of the researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who worked on the new fabrication method.

‘Current approaches to smart textile energy storage, like stitching batteries into garments or using e-fibres, can be cumbersome and heavy, and can also have capacity issues,’ she said. ‘These electronic components can also suffer short-circuits and mechanical failure when they come into contact with sweat or with moisture from the environment.’

The scientists use lasers to print graphene supercapacitors onto fabric. (Credit: RMIT University) 

In a proof-of-concept, the researchers connected their laser printed supercapacitors with a solar cell, delivering an efficient, washable and self-powering smart fabric that overcomes the key drawbacks of existing e-textile energy storage technologies.

‘Our graphene-based supercapacitor is not only fully washable, it can store the energy needed to power an intelligent garment – and it can be made in minutes at large scale,’ Thekkakara remarked. ‘By solving the energy storage-related challenges of e-textiles, we hope to power the next generation of wearable technology and intelligent clothing.’

The researchers analysed the performance of the proof-of-concept smart textile across a range of mechanical, temperature and washability tests and found it remained stable and efficient.

RMIT Honorary Professor and Distinguished Professor at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, Min Gu, said the technology could enable real-time storage of renewable energies for e-textiles. ‘It also opens the possibility for faster roll-to-roll fabrication, with the use of advanced laser printing based on multifocal fabrication and machine learning techniques,’ he said.

The researchers have applied for a patent for the new technology.