Smart Textiles and sustainability

A new impetus to technology from the COVID crisis
Technologies - MU Sustainable Innovation

The term Smart Textiles refers to materials capable of perceiving stimuli from the external environment and reacting to mechanical, thermal, and chemical manipulations by modifying their structure automatically or by detecting physiological and environmental data to transfer them to subjects capable of interpreting and using them.


Smart textiles were born from military and aerospace research in the middle of the last century; they have later conquered the medical and sportswear world and are now ready to enter the fashion market. A trend favored by the successes of research on conductive materials in enhancing efficiency and miniaturizing. Flexible conductive materials such as conductive yarns and polymers, optical fibers, stainless steel wires, carbon nanotubes, piezoelectric materials in interaction with electronic devices are now inserted into clothing in a non-invasive way.

It is, in fact, a growing market: in 2019 it reached the value of 3.4 billion dollars but will exceed 9 billion by 2025 (source: Imarc)

In addition to the traditional demand for PPE - personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, shoes, clothing), the Covid19 pandemic has given further impetus to the development and diffusion of Smart Textiles.


How can Smart Textiles have an anti-coronavirus function?


From the pandemic, we learned how important it is to monitor people's health and map potential contagion risks, consistently, a function that can be assumed by wearable devices. Furthermore, expressions such as 'social distancing' have entered daily life, professional relationships, access to services, mobility, and recreational activities. 


Medical care and assistance are also increasingly delivered remotely. Comftech, a company based in Monza, Italy, has developed a practical solution to monitor patients at home continuously, non-invasively, and in real-time through the detection of vital parameters. The project partners include universities and private specialized companies. The Comftech system includes: a fabric, with sensors, an oximeter to measure blood oxygenation, which is a critical parameter in the treatment of the coronavirus disease, a thermometer, and an app for data collection. The data are accessible to the medical staff through a telemedicine service, who has an overall picture of the patient and continuously monitors the evolution of his state.


Can we define Smart Textiles as sustainable?


Smart Textiles function is to improve people's quality of life, and they are surrounded by a halo of "sustainable by definition." Their mission, however, is not enough to qualify them as sustainable. Like any other product, the degree of sustainability depends on the ecological and social history of the materials, the production process, the use, and the end of life management. Electronic components, equipped with a transmission module and battery, can prevent proper recycling at the device end of life. The design of a sustainable wearable requires to think about recyclability and to make the removal of non-recyclable elements easy.