Pushing for a Healthier World with Sustainable Smart Textiles

By Grace Dinges

It is well known that the fashion and textiles industry is a main contributor to environmental harm, but what is being done to alleviate this? Taking a sustainable spin on smart textiles is an up and coming method to decrease some of the negative impacts being caused by the industry. Smart textiles are fabrics that have employed electrical, chemical, thermal, and/or mechanical modifications in order to sense environmental stimuli that one is exposed to, and increase the functionality of the apparel in said environment.1

            Scientists and researchers have been studying how smart textiles can be used in a sustainable way to fight for the earth. For example, sustainable smart textiles aiding with increased passive and active thermoregulation for the human body have shown decreased energy needs and costs. In other words, because the wearer is more capable of thermoregulating without the use of external heating and cooling systems, energy demand and waste goes down. Passive thermoregulatory smart textiles do not require an external energy source for heating and cooling, and focus on manipulating how clothing affects the human body in terms of heat conduction, maximization of infrared radiation transmittance or reflectance from the body, moisture regulation through water vapor control at the skin’s surface, and breathability. Active thermoregulatory smart textiles have been researched less, but there are some promising technologies being produced. These technologies require an external energy source for heating and cooling, and include “electroheat”, where voltages applied to conductors within the fabric activate heating mechanisms, the “thermoelectric effect”, where semiconductor materials utilize active transport of heat from the body to the surrounding environment, and the “electrocaloric effect”, where an electric field is applied to a material which responds with reversible temperature change. Some of these thermoregulatory smart textiles circulating the market include EnergearTM, ThermoballTM, OutlastTM, Detexion®, and WarmXTM.2 Soma, a women’s fashion brand which sells bras, underwear, and pajamas, has a collection called “Cool Nights”, which also uses smart textiles to aid in thermoregulation. These textiles help to cool the wearer throughout the night with decreased aid of a fan or air conditioning, again leading to decreased energy demand and cost.

            Smart textiles also have the potential to harvest bio-mechanical energy from the human body and environmental surroundings which act as renewable energy sources. The energy harvested from the human body originates from bio-mechanical movements such as blood flow, walking, and breathing, body heat, biochemicals, solar radiation, and hybrid energy harvesting. By utilizing these renewable energy sources rather than depending on external energy sources to meet everyday energy requirements of the human body, there will be a decrease in the amount of wasted and non-renewable energy being used for thermoregulation.3

            The sustainability of smart textiles also manifests in terms of human health directly. Nanoparticles are microscopic particles which can be utilized by textile chemists to make sustainable smart textiles. Nanoparticles such as TiO2 and ZnO give textiles the ability to self-clean by the mechanism of UV radiation causing electron excitation, ultimately causing water and oxygen to create ion and radical species which degrade stains. Therefore, this helps to save water that would otherwise be used to wash the clothing item. Also, the self-cleaning properties help to fight against microorganisms and have antibacterial properties.4 By protecting people from harmful bacteria, these smart textiles are not only aiding in the sustainability of human health by protecting them from disease, but also assist in decreasing the amount of patients going to hospitals for illnesses that could be avoided. Overall, smart textiles have a strong sustainable potential, and are promising tools to assist in alleviating negative impacts of the fashion and textiles industry on the environment.

Works Cited

1. Veske, P.; Ilén, E., Review of the end-of-life solutions in electronics-based smart textiles. The

    J. Text. Inst. 2021, 112 (9), 1500-1513.

2. Fang, Y.;  Chen, G.;  Bick, M.; Chen, J., Smart textiles for personalized thermoregulation.

    Chemical Society Reviews 2021, 50 (17), 9357-9374.

3. Chen, G.;  Li, Y.;  Bick, M.; Chen, J., Smart Textiles for Electricity Generation. Chemical

    Reviews 2020, 120 (8), 3668-3720.

4. Romagnoli, M. J.; Gonzalez, J. S.; Martinez, M. A.; Alvarez, V. A. Micro- and

    Nanotechnology Applied on Eco-Friendly Smart Textiles. Handbook of Nanomaterials and

    Nanocomposites for Energy and Environmental Applications; Springer International

    Publishing: Cham, 2020; pp 1–19.

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