Jan 24, 2024

10 min read

Energy Harvesting Powered Smart Fabrics - The Future of Fashion

The magic and transformative potential of IoT has disrupted a huge number of industries in recent years. The textile industry is no exception. Smart textiles fitted with IoT sensors are being used to unlock a tremendous range of functionality and possibilities, paving the way for an exciting and more sustainable future. Let’s explore more of this topic and check out the ways in which IoT is being integrated into clothing and textiles.

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We live in a hyperconnected world today. The internet has allowed for this tremendous possibility to create a world where information flows seamlessly. When the world wide web became widely accessible in the 90s, we started seeing just how disruptive this level of information free-flow could be - it changed the way we bought tickets, wrote letters, applied for jobs and studied for exams. But that was just the beginning - as we progressed through to the 2010s, a more ludicrous idea started to emerge - what if we could connect to the internet not just through phones and computers but literally all sorts of everyday objects around us? Why limit the power of the internet to a few traditional gateways? Why not just throw the floodgates open and find a way to connect everything around us to the internet? These were the ideas that led to the Internet of Things, as we know it today. 

In the last decade we’ve come a long way from just the idea stage - today, IoT technology is a multi-headed behemoth, comprising hundreds of allied technologies and applications. The basic idea behind any IoT-based solution is very simple - find a way to integrate IoT sensors into any operation or product, and you immediately open up a huge range of possibilities. 

IoT technology allows us to create systems that are resilient, efficient and robust - thanks to a high density of micro-communication happening within the system, we are able to glean highly granular insights into the various processes involved in any given system and iron out inefficiencies to a large extent. 

The Futuristic World of Smart Textiles

So, what is smart clothing? 

In essence, it refers to clothing and textiles that are incorporated with IoT sensors, allowing them to interface with the internet. Basically, it’s getting garments to exchange information with the internet, enabling a host of possibilities in the process. 

Imagine this - you are going running, and your tank top is able to warn you when you are getting dehydrated, based on the amount of sweat you are producing. Sounds pretty sci-fi doesn’t it? Or imagine a pair of jeans that keep track of how many times they’ve been washed. Imagine your clothes being able to interact with your washing machine all by themselves - figuring out by themselves what the best wash cycle is based on all the variables involved. . 

All this smart fabric stuff sounds pretty futuristic doesn’t it? But actually, the idea goes as far back as the 90s -The idea of clothes that could do more than just, well, clothe you, has been around for a while.In the 1990s, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a wearable motherboard - it was purported to be able to track vital signs and was intended to find potential use in medical monitoring, defence and aviation. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) media lab was a hotspot for smart textile related innovation in the late 90s as well. Most of the groundwork for today’s wearable technology was done back then. Researchers from MIT explored various wearable computing modalities, including smart garments. 

In the year 2000, Levi’s and Philips got together to create the ICD+ jacket - this jacket had a built in phone and music player - with the user getting to control both using a fabric keyboard. But back then, the technology wasn’t ripe enough to allow for the seamless execution of these innovative ideas. The technological ecosystem required for such ambitious projects was not yet in place. 

A few years later, in the early 2000s, MIT launched another initiative called the MIThrill project, which was aimed at creating a fully functional full body computing system - the idea was to create a modern-day armour that would incorporate an entire range of sensors, processors and integrated circuits, to facilitate communication, tracking and on-the-go computing. This was a pivotal project for smart clothing technology and paved the way for the innovations that were to follow in the space. 

EU Textile Waste Rules by 2028

The potentially pivotal role of smart textiles in our future was brought to light by the recent EU regulations calling for a more stringent set of norms that fashion companies would have to contend with as soon as the year 2028. 

It’s understandable too. The fashion industry is seen as a huge contributor to the developing ecological catastrophes of ocean and soil pollution. Millions of tons of clothing end up in landfills each year. It is estimated that only a measly 20% of the world's total textile waste is recycled or reused. The textile industry also attracts a bad rap for the sheer amount of emissions they produce. 

The new EU norms necessitate a large-scale transformation in the way giant apparel manufacturers go about their business. In this context, smart textiles assume a good deal of relevance.

Batteryless IoT Is A Great Start

The massive amounts of textile waste we generate and the gigantic ecological footprint of this waste can’t be ignored. The EU regulations come in the wake of much public outrage against fast fashion brands for a number of years now. 

In this section, we’ll see how IoT, especially batteryless IoT, is changing the way we tackle the problem of textile waste. 

The idea is to find a way to create clothes that last for a long time while also promoting a culture of reusing, repairing and recycling clothes. The idea is to create a circular model which is more sustainable, environmentally speaking. 

The textile industry is largely responsible for burgeoning textile landfills in countries like Ghana and Nepal. Our oceans are fast filling up with microplastics which are gradually seeping into all levels of the food chain - The seafood we eat for example. Over a period of time, this is leading to dangerously high concentrations of microplastics across the biosphere. In fact, the problem has become so dire that scientists recently found microplastics in human breast milk! 

Smart textiles can be deployed in a number of ways to achieve more sustainability in the fashion industry. For instance, the EU now wants to be able to hold fashion companies to very exacting standards that they will be legally obligated to comply with. 

The EU is calling for a ban on the destruction of surplus textiles. We need textile products to be equipped with IoT sensors in order to track their movement - how else can we track hundreds of billions of tons of cargo.  

When Levi’s introduced their Jacquard jacket a few years ago, in partnership with google, the world was taken by storm. The true potential of IoT integration in clothing was on full display. However cool these jackets are, the smart component in these smart jackets, is actually battery-powered. This is perhaps what the creators of the product felt was the best fit given the design but we’re trying to make a different point - if we are to scale the idea of fitting clothing with microchips, we can’t quite make it work with batteries. 

Imagine a battery-powered component in each of the billions of tee shirts that roll out every year - even with the longest lasting batteries that we have on the market today, that is simply not tenable when the scale is accounted for. It could work for a high-jacket that’s meant to be an upmarket offering - but definitely not at scale. 

If we are to deploy IoT for smart clothing at scale, batteryless is the way to go. Batteryless IoT outshine their battery powered competitors with a few key advantages - the first one’s obvious - they don’t need battery replacements. This makes it very hard to look past self-powered IoT devices. If we are to equip hundreds of billions of textile items with sensors, it would make no sense to have these sensors be battery powered. That’s a logistical and environmental nightmare. Moreover, it utterly and completely defeats the very point of trying to use IoT to facilitate more environmentally sound practices in the first place. 

In addition to being virtually maintenance free and much more durable, batteryless sensors are also better for another reason - they are much less bulky, which makes for lighter and more comfortable designs. 

Untapped Potential

Smart fabrics have already entered the market and very conspicuously so - nevertheless, they haven’t come anywhere close to realising their potential. In the next few years, we are likely to see more and more IoT-based solutions featuring energy harvesting powered sensors in clothing. 

The possibilities are endless in this space - Self-heating and cooling clothes that can regulate their temperature autonomously based on weather conditions and the wearer’s physical parameters are already a thing. 

Let’s take a look at some other interesting use-cases for IoT in fabrics. 

1. Fitness Tracking

Specialised clothing fitted with piezoelectric powered sensors are being used to track athletic performance using sensors that track various physical parameters such as heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, blood sugar, body temperature and oxygen levels. 

In some cases, these can also be powered by sensors that harvest energy from the wearer’s body heat or solar power. 

2. Smart Socks

Smart socks that could monitor and regulate the foot temperature of diabetic patients. Many diabetic patients develop foot ulcers that can take weeks or even months to heal. These socks, which are usually powered by triboelectric or thermal energy harvesting, are able to offset some of the risk associated with foot ulcers. 

3. Educational Apparel

Interactive clothing powered by thermal energy harvesting sensors. These could be used as educational tools for kids to make for a more interactive and engaging learning experience. There is a significant amount of interest in this area from companies. 

4. UV Sensing Swimwear 

There are some interesting things happening in the swimwear industry. A new trend in the business is IoT-enabled UV monitoring swimwear i.e your swimming trunks will tell you when you are getting too much UV exposure so you could prevent sunburns. 

5. Navigation Guidance

We could create clothes that are able to give visually impaired people haptic guidance in the form of vibrations and audio prompts. These products could also be powered by body heat or piezoelectric energy harvesting. 

A Strong Case For The Future

There you go then - batteryless smart clothing do make a compelling case for themselves. As we move into the future, we will need all the help we can get in combating the pressing environmental challenges that face us. 

There will, in all likelihood, be a much higher emphasis placed on sustainability in the coming years. This means that it would be all the more essential for everyday items to have tracking capabilities. When large freights of cargo are shipped across the globe, they will need in-built tracking in order to make sure they are complying with government regulations. 

And this is only possible with low-cost sensors that don’t themselves come with a huge environmental footprint. 

This is where batteryless IoT makes a lot of sense. Energy harvesting technology today has grown to the point where we can create highly compelling products that don’t need any batteries whatsoever, at any point in the usage cycle - wrap your head around that for a minute - imagine a smart tee-shirt or a pair or tracking socks that you will never have to charge - they’d simply power themselves perpetually using energy from their surroundings.

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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