Applications of Smart Textiles for Protective Purposes

Last Updated on 28/01/2021

Smart Textile:
Smart textiles are defined as textiles that interact with their surroundings. Basically, smart textiles are referred to as those textiles that are able to react and adapt to an environment stimulus. The origin of the stimulus and the response can be either from an electrical, thermal, chemical or magnetic source. Smart textiles are fibrous structures that are capable of sensing, actuating, generating/storing power and/or communicating. In this study we will discuss different types of applications of smart textiles for protective purposes.

Smart Textiles for Protective Purposes
Fig: Smart Textiles for Protective Purposes

Applications of Smart Textiles for Protective Purposes:

There are various types of application of smart textiles for protective purposes. This includes healthcare textile and sportswear, military textile, police etc. Smart textiles can contribute to protection and safety in three ways:

  • They are able to detect conditions that signal increased danger
  • They prevent accidents by sending out a warning when hazardous conditions have been detected
  • In the case of serious threats, they can react by providing instantaneous protection.

Apart from obvious threats like heat, chemicals, gases etc., danger can also be caused by people themselves. Individuals can be threatened by an acute disease such as a heart attack, a stroke, or other physical conditions may cause them to be unable to perform their tasks safely. Personnel driving a machine or a vehicle for instance must maintain a high and continuous level of concentration and awareness. Fatigue, consumption of alcohol or medication can negatively affect such parameters, leading to an increased risk of accidents. Ultimately the suit may communicate to the machine that the driver is no longer able to continue his operations safely and the machine may be stopped. Sending out information can be achieved also at several levels. One of the simplest reactions is color change, providing straightforward visual signals to both the wearer and the environment. More complex systems process the information and send out a warning to the wearer or to an external system, so that adequate measures can be taken in time; leaving the location, sending help or many other actions.

Smart textile in sports for protective purpose
Fig: Smart textile in sports for protective purpose

An important benefit of smart textiles in protective applications is that the textile can react when necessary, in a passive way or by active control mechanisms. Passive protection systems that are in use today usually have an important negative impact on comfort and freedom of movement. A good example are firefighting suits where the insulation level is so high that the firemen suffer fatigue because of overheating caused by their own body heat, irrespective of the external fire. Bio-chemical protection requires a significant decrease in material porosity, leading to a strong reduction of ventilation capacity ± a major factor influencing comfort. Hence, when such clothes have to be worn throughout the day, thermal comfort is limited.

Protective textile
Fig: Protective textile

In general, smart clothes offer the possibility of adaptation to the environment, providing protection only when required, for instance, when the temperature is too high, when harmful chemicals or micro-organisms have been detected and so on. When protection is only temporarily required, the balance between protection and comfort is totally different; higher levels of protection become possible.

Actively controlled smart textiles can even go one step further in this process. Not only can they adapt their level of protection as a function of instantaneous needs, additionally, they can neutralize the effect of the threatening factor; the suit can cool down the body when it gets excessively hot (for instance for firemen) or warm it up when it is cooling down (in case of people working in cold rooms or outdoors). Neutralizing chemicals can be released as well as antibiotic products but only when necessary. Indirectly, smart clothes can contribute to safety by providing optimal working conditions so that fatigue and stress are minimized. Consequently, it will be possible for the worker to maintain a higher level of concentration during a longer period.

Optimal conditions may involve a large number of parameters:
Thermal comfort (definitely one of the main factors inducing stress), in itself includes:

1. Temperature

  •  Humidity
  • Air velocity
  • Illumination

2. External noise
3. Odour.

Textile products are extremely flexible in design. Therefore, a smart design may foresee storage facilities for tools, small devices and so on. This can also contribute to better and safer working conditions. A useful example in this respect is the Reima suit for snow-riding. 5 The ability of smart clothes to assess the level of comfort or stress in a person, their overall health or level of concentration opens up several other fields of application. It can be the basis for combining increased performance of employees with safer working conditions.

Apart from technical features, two of the main challenges are maintenance and durability. All functions must resist normal wear and cleaning processes.

Professional clothes are often cleaned in industrial processes with high- temperature, mechanical forces and so on. Functional failure may lead to injuries, so reliable products are required. Therefore, testing of functionality, and particularly self-testing capabilities of the textile product, are required. To fully achieve the capabilities mentioned above, real very smart materials have to be designed.

Basically, five functions can be distinguished in a smart suit, namely:

  1. Sensing
  2. Data processing
  3. Actuating
  4. Storage
  5. Communication.

The different components all have a clear role, although not all smart suits will contain all functions. The functions may be quite apparent, or may be an intrinsic property of the material or structure. They all require appropriate materials and structures, and they must be compatible with the function of clothing, being comfortable, durable, resistant to regular textile maintenance processes and so on.

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