A major factor holding back development of wearable biosensors for health monitoring is the lack of a lightweight, long-lasting power supply.
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US have developed a method for making a charge-storing system that is easily integrated into clothing for "embroidering a charge-storing pattern onto any garment." "Batteries or other kinds of charge storage are still the limiting components for most portable, wearable, ingestible or flexible technologies. The devices tend to be some combination of too large, too heavy and not flexible," said Trisha L Andrew, who led the study published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.
The method uses a micro-supercapacitor and combines vapour-coated conductive threads with a polymer film, plus a special sewing technique to create a flexible mesh of aligned electrodes on a textile backing.
The resulting solid-state device has a high ability to store charge for its size, and other characteristics that allow it to power wearable biosensors.
While researchers have remarkably miniaturised many different electronic circuit components, until now the same could not be said for charge-storing devices.
"We show that we can literally embroider a charge-storing pattern onto any garment using the vapour-coated threads that our lab makes. This opens the door for simply sewing circuits on self-powered smart garments," said Andrew.
Researchers point out that supercapacitors are ideal candidates for wearable charge storage circuits because they have inherently higher power densities compared to batteries.
However, "incorporating electrochemically active materials with high electrical conductivities and rapid ion transport into textiles is challenging," they said.
Researchers showed that their vapour coating process creates porous conducting polymer films on densely-twisted yarns, which can be easily swelled with electrolyte ions and maintain high charge storage capacity per unit length as compared to prior work with dyed or extruded fibres.
Andrew noted that textile scientists have tended not to use vapour deposition because of technical difficulties and high costs, but more recently, research has shown that the technology can be scaled up and remain cost-effective.
Researchers are working on incorporating the new embroidered charge-storage arrays with e-textile sensors and low-power microprocessors to build smart garments that can monitor a person's gait and joint movements throughout a normal day.