Wearable sensors woven into apparel

Researchers at Imperial College London have embedded low-cost sensors that monitor breathing, heart rate, and ammonia into t-shirts and face masks.

Imperial College London/Materials Today

Potential applications include monitoring exercise, sleep, and stress, plus diagnosing and monitoring disease through breath and vital signs.

Spun from PECOTEX, a new Imperial-developed cotton-based conductive thread, the sensors cost little to manufacture as $0.15 produces a metre of thread to integrate over 10 sensors into clothing. The breakthrough is detailed in Materials Today

In a statement, first author Fahad Alshabouna, PhD candidate at Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “The flexible medium of clothing means our sensors have a wide range of applications. They’re also relatively easy to produce which means we could scale up manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearables in clothing.” 

The research team embroidered the sensors into a face mask to monitor breathing, a t-shirt to monitor heart activity, and textiles to monitor gases like ammonia, a component of the breath that can be used to track liver and kidney function. The ammonia sensors were developed to test whether gas sensors could also be manufactured using embroidery.  

“We demonstrated applications in monitoring cardiac activity and breathing, and sensing gases,” said Fahad. “Future potential applications include diagnosing and monitoring disease and treatment, monitoring the body during exercise, sleep, and stress, and use in batteries, heaters, anti-static clothing." 

PECOTEX is said to be machine washable, less breakable and more electrically conductive than commercially available silver-based conductive threads. This allows more layers to be added to create more complex types of sensor.

Lead author Dr Firat Guder, also of the Department of Bioengineering, said: “PECOTEX is high-performing, strong, and adaptable to different needs. It’s readily scalable, meaning we can produce large volumes inexpensively using both domestic and industrial computerised embroidery machines. 

“Our research opens up exciting possibilities for wearable sensors in everyday clothing. By monitoring breathing, heart rate, and gases, they can already be seamlessly integrated, and might even be able to help diagnose and monitor treatments of disease in the future.” 

The researchers will now explore new application areas like energy storage, energy harvesting and biochemical sensing, as well as finding partners for commercialisation. 

This study was funded by the Saudi Ministry of Education, EPSRC, Cytiva, Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Army.