UMass Lowell given grant to research smart fabric

UMass Lowell’s foray into smart fabric hearkens back to its history. In 1895, the Lowell Textile Institute was founded and was located on what is now North Campus. (Courtesy of Technical Textiles)

Kyle Arsenault
Connector Contributor

Governor Charlie Baker awarded UMass Lowell an $11.3 million state grant to establish the Fabric Discovery Center, with the mission of fostering innovation and collaboration between multiple academic disciplines and industries to help advance the science of smart fabric technology.

Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said, “With our ongoing leadership in the development of advanced fibers and textiles, medical textiles and flexible electronics, today’s announcement continues UMass Lowell’s strong partnership with Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, NextFlex, the U.S. Army and the Commonwealth to build the future of high-tech manufacturing in Lowell and across the nation.”

The center will be at the forefront of developing, testing and manufacturing smart fabrics, revolutionary textiles that are infused with wearable electronic capabilities.

Conducting the research are UMass Lowell’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Dr. Julie Chen and Professor Ramaswamy Nagarajan.

“One goal of the FDC research is to seamlessly embed flexible hybrid electronics into fabric by threading conductive wire, which is indistinguishable from normal thread, thereby creating the next generation of smart fabrics,” said Nagarajan.

Smart fibers are extremely sophisticated and have the ability to do many things traditional fabrics cannot, providing added benefits to the wearer by incorporating a variety of different features, including sensors, biometrics and temperature control.

Currently the demand for smart fabric technology stems mainly from military applications. These fabrics are often the demanded for performance driven applications. However, in the future, these technologies will transition to consumer applications in health, communications, energy, security, arts and much more. This new generation textile would surpass the functionality of normal gear due to its lightweight design and advanced technological capabilities.

Chen said, “One proposed applications would be for Air Force pilots to effortlessly measure their cardiac function without the added need for bulky wires, simply using an external device to read results.”

The textiles could even address the issue of heat control, changing in geometric shape to trap or release body heat allowing soldiers, in extreme climates, to more comfortably conduct operations. This ability to shift geometric pattern could also be utilized in preventing odor, making the need for washing garments less frequent or, perhaps, not necessary. This would have a positive effect on the environment by increasing the longevity of a clothing’s lifespan and preventing water waste while washing clothes. The practical applications for smart fabrics are widespread and multifaceted.

The behavior of a piece of fabric depends both on the geometric arrangement of the threads and the materials used in the manufacturing process. Nagarajan, who has a research interest in integrated hybrid nanomaterials, said that dimethylformamide (DMF) is used as a solvent for textile coatings because it is valued at around 65 cents a pound. But as Nagarajan pointed out, it contains chemicals that “can cause liver damage and other adverse health effects.” per the Center for Disease Control.

“Through a project funded by the Toxic Use Reduction Institute, the Fabric Discovery center is working to find safer replacements for DMF,” said Nagarajan.

This new generation of textiles looks for healthier, more sustainable and more functional alternatives to augment the integrity and durability of the material.

Most importantly, the state grant will not only serve to develop research, but will also seek to restore and revitalize Lowell to its heyday as a textile innovator.

In the 1950s, cheap labor in the South and overseas moved the textile industry away from the city, taking with it not only jobs but also the technical arts surrounding textiles.

State Senator Eileen Donoghue said, “There was a feeling for a long time that textiles were part of Lowell’s past, but not its future. Lowell has become the leader of the technological revolution that once seemed so disruptive.”

Smart fabric technology provides a perfect avenue for Lowell to reemerge as a textile innovator.

The grant will help UMass Lowell fund the facility and to acquire the specialized equipment needed to conduct research and ultimately develop flexible electronics.

Chen says, “The Fabric Discovery Center at 110 Canal will be a place where the Lowell community – students, faculty, startups, and our industry, government and non-profit partners – can all come together to develop the next innovations in wearable electronics, medical textiles, smart structures, human-robot interaction and many more flexible, 3D, ‘human-centered’ products.”

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