Smart Fabrics

Penn State professor’s work in computational textiles improves lives in Pennsylvania and beyond, from energy conservation to healthcare.

Felecia Davis, assistant professor at the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, has drawn on Penn State’s vast resources and expertise in fields ranging from energy and mineral engineering to electrical engineering and landscape architecture to form a collaborative, interdisciplinary team focused on developing a solar tent. The goal of the project is to develop a tent that is both functional in providing shelter but that can also capture enough energy through its solar fibers to power a cellphone.

Davis said the team’s solar tent will serve as a gateway to utilizing solar fabrics in other contexts.

“It’s not just a tent to us,” she said. “It’s really a way of understanding how we can get this fiber into a fabric so it can be worn, put into furnishings or used as shelter.”

The fiber, which was discovered — almost by accident — by John Badding, professor of chemistry, physics, and material sciences and engineering at Penn State, is razor thin, much like a strand of hair, but it can collect energy from all sides, and its flexibility makes it conducive to being weaved into fabric. The fiber’s utility as a strand-based solar cell was not lost on Davis, and it fit perfectly in with her interest in computational textiles — fabrics the respond to commands through computer programming, electronics and sensors.

"So Pennsylvania can be a hub of manufacturing and jobs, and these are jobs that are a combination of tech and traditional. It's a way of revitalizing a traditional industry and bringing it into the 21st century."

Left: a sensor attached to a textile. Right: a textile made of wool and copper felted together in a coiled mat

Left: A sensor attached to a textile. Right: A textile made with a fine white wool yarn and stainless steel and copper coated polyester yarn that can move into different states from flat to hair-raised imitating animal reactions to different stimuli. Image: Michelle Bixby

The researchers are now looking at how they can get the most energy out of the fabric while also understanding how machines can incorporate the fibers in such a way that solar fabrics might be produced in an industrial setting in the future.

“Textiles are everywhere, so if you have a fiber that can be weaved into just about anything, efficiency takes on another meaning because you have this growth of scale,” Davis said. “Solar fibers can be integrated into clothing, car upholstery, convertible tops, furniture, curtains — there are all of these uses that I saw for them.”

The industrial component is especially important in Pennsylvania, where communities are seeking to re-invent themselves after a decades-long decline in manufacturing jobs. Davis said computational textiles offer the opportunity to find solutions to problems that will ultimately make life better, and she believes Pennsylvania can play an important role as smart textiles evolve.

“Pennsylvania has a strong textile manufacturing base, and our state can be part of this transformation,” said Davis. “Penn State has partnered with Drexel, and Drexel will be a manufacturing center. We share industrial machines with them to produce the work here. So Pennsylvania can be a hub of manufacturing and jobs, and these are jobs that are a combination of tech and traditional. It’s a way of revitalizing a traditional industry and bringing it into the 21st century.”

Two panels of wool felted into screens

FELT is a 5’ x 6’ computational textile panel which was designed to understand what emotion gets communicated to people using vision and touch from a still and shape changing textile. Image: Michelle Bixby

While solar fabrics show tremendous promise as a source of capturing and utilizing energy, smart fabrics in general have a wide range of potential real-world uses. For example, Davis pointed to applications where computational textiles embedded with electronics and sensors can help to monitor an infant’s breathing, map an individual’s walking pattern to better understand their health, or track a patient’s vitals from the comfort of home rather than a hospital bed.

As an architect, Davis is especially in tune to the conceivable impact that computational textiles can have on the future of hospitals and the evolution of patient care. 

“If you can monitor a patient from home, they don’t have to be in a hospital,” Davis said. “If patients are able to stay at home, then you don’t need such a big hospital, and your hospital can be conceived of in a completely different way.”