Summary:

Super small strands of silver nanowires make for a great flexible antenna according to an NC State research team. When embedded in materials, it could help add more connectivity to our clothes.

Researchers at NC State may have found a way to add connectivity to your clothes. The team created a flexible antenna from silver nanowires wrapped in a liquid polymer: The antenna can be stretched like fabric but returns to its original form.

silver nanowire antenna

How does it work? From the research paper published earlier this month:

“This patterned material forms the radiating element of a microstrip patch antenna. By manipulating the shape and dimensions of the radiating element, the researchers can control the frequency at which the antenna sends and receives signals. The radiating layer is then bonded to a “ground” layer, which is made of the same composite, except it has a continuous layer of silver nanowires embedded.”

Wearable smart clothes need more than an antenna of course. That’s where the silver nanowires could come in handy. Last year, a team at the University of California-Los Angeles used the same material to create a stretchable OLED display. Paired with the NC State antenna design and small radio chips, you could have connected displays blended into a shirt sleeve, for example, providing the type of data you’d expect from a smartwatch.

There’s also great potential for the flexible antenna without a screen, of course. I could see clothing and other wearable applications that simply send data to a smartphone or other connected device. Think of shirts with sensors to capture UV ray data during the day and report the information. Or perhaps — and I would love this — sneakers that track total miles run over their lifetime: With a radio and thin flexible antenna, you could receive an alert after so many miles of usage.

My biggest concern with any clothing that uses an antenna like this? I’d be afraid I’d mess up the frequency because I always seem to shrink my clothes in the dryer.

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