Graphene and the Future of Textiles

Graphene inspired by Spiders Silk

Being hailed as the strongest material ever tested on this planet is impressive to say the least. Since its (re)discovery and isolation in 2004, graphene has worn that title with pride, beating out everything from diamonds to steel – and winning Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene“.  Due to the incredible demand across all industries for the strongest, lightest, and thinnest material, new and more efficient methods of production are in development (check out this crazy method for graphene nanotextiles. It involves spiders!). In the race for accessible and commercialized smart textiles, graphene appears in more and more technological innovations – and with good reason.

Graphene is a 2 dimensional (‘til just recently) material that is, in simple terms, 1 atom thick layer of crystallized carbon structured into a hexagonal lattice form. Developed based on studies of the weakly bonded atoms in graphite, Geim isolated the carbon using a on a large piece of graphite. When down to the 1 atom thick layer, it was transferred to a silicon wafer using micromechanical cleavage (transferring the single atom layer using Scotch tape). So, why is graphene so strong? It comes down to the electrical strength between the side-by-side carbon atoms in the 2D graphene sheet. When more atoms are built on top of the 1 atom thick “sheet” of graphene, it decreases the strength by increasing the probability of a defect at the atomic level and essentially becomes graphite.

With the discovery came the knowledge of its many incredible properties, many of which will undoubtedly play (if they don’t already!) into the future of smart textiles. These include:

Strength. As mentioned before, graphene is a “wonder material” – at 1 atom thick, its strength surpasses that of a diamond.

Conductivity. Proven to be more electrically conductive than copper, as well as thermally conductive, these smart textiles have the potential for wearables that are actually wearable. Coated fabrics are already being developed in the Cambridge Graphene Center that can withstand at least 10 washes. Potential applications range from garments monitoring vitals in either a medical, home health, or even military setting with cord free sensors placed directly onto the fabric, with thermal conductivity aiding in heat dissipation to “optimize electronic function“, or even to track temperature of the wearer.

Flexibility. While smart textiles in their infancy weren’t as comfortable due to use of stiffer conductive fabrics or other rigid technology, graphene’s flexibility, low density, and weight make it easy to forget it’s even there. The flexibility goes beyond the textile industy – check out this flexible OLED screen aiming for commercialization in the next 5 years; this could lead to bendable screens on garments integrating with the graphene equipped textile itself.

Water Repellent. At an atomic level, graphene is hydrophobic. Recent research proves an “interesting relationship with water”.

Biocompatibility. Being able to comfortably interact with the human body (or any other biological form) with no irritation is a major development in the smart textile industry. In fact, graphene is so biocompatible it is being tested as a potential bone implant material.

Transparency and Versatility. Graphene is the first 2 Dimensional crystal we’ve discovered, making it as transparent and versatile as it is strong. Its integration into smart textiles developed for medical and military personnel can usher us into the next generation of wearables –“invisibles”.

Energy Collection. Graphene not only sources, collects, and converts energy to electricity – but in the case of solar energy, can actually double it.

The applications of graphene in the smart textile niche – and across all industries – are just beginning to come to fruition, and the race to find effective ways to produce and bring these products to commercial market is full throttle.