Clothes serve many purposes, both functional and fashionable. In fiction, we have conjured up clothing with amazing abilities: superhero shields, invisibility cloaks, gadget-filled spy suits. The Radcliffe Institute’s annual science symposium, “Smart Clothes,” held November 15, 2013, at the Knafel Center, showed how close technology is coming to making clothing of the imagination real, with examples such as armor that mimics an exoskeleton, suits that help people run faster, and fabrics that power electronic devices or sense the beating of the heart.
Peter Vukusic, a professor of biophotonics at the University of Exeter, showed how clothing could be even more brilliantly colored with tricks learned from nature’s stunningly complex strategies for producing color. We’ve long depended on natural pigments to color our clothing—chemicals that absorb and reflect specifific wavelengths of light. But pigments are only one way to make color. Vukusic’s research focuses on photonic crystals, tiny structures on the surfaces of organisms that manipulate light. They give the peacock its magnificently colored plumage and butterflies their iridescent wings. As light passes through these nanoscale structures, certain bands of wavelengths are reflected back as brilliant colors.
Take Morpho butterflies, a group of nearly 30 species of butterfly, many of which are colored in bright blue-and-green iridescence. A microscopic analysis of the scales that cover their wings revealed structures like tapered combs, Vukusic said, which reflect light differently depending on its direction. Different species have evolved different distributions of these combs, which make them visibly distinct.
Vukusic collaborated with Joanna Aizenberg—a former director of the science program at Radcliffe, a former Wallach Professor, the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at Harvard, and one of the conference’s organizers. They discovered that the intense blue-green hue of the tropical fruit Margaritaria nobilis is created by concentric layers of cells rolled together. Their team used the same strategy to roll layers of materials together to create fibers that can be “tuned” to reflect different colors of light. What’s amazing about these systems, he said, is how they “use materials with limited optical properties but still perform remarkably.”
Armor for Soldiers
Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, is similarly inspired by biological structures, but for different purposes. Her lab has been analyzing how organisms construct armor to protect themselves, with the goal of developing novel armor for soldiers. Ortiz said that biologically inspired armors have the potential to be more dynamic, lightweight, and flexible, and nature offers examples of ways to survive extreme conditions, such as heat, blasts, pressure vacuums, and toxins.
Ortiz’s group looks at how natural armors are put together, from the chemistry of their materials to the shapes and patterns in which they are laid out. For example, the armored fish Polypterus senegalus is a living fossil belonging to a family of fish that evolved 96 million years ago and has changed little since. The fish is extremely fast and flexible, Ortiz explained, yet it’s covered with ceramic armor made from ganoin, one of the toughest substances in nature. Scales of ganoin are layered in such a way that the armor dissipates the energy of a blow. Using computer models and 3-D printing, her team has been examining how the changes in the armor’s shape allow it to be both strong and flexible. “Ultimately, our goal is to translate from an animal body to a human body,” Ortiz said.
Lightening Soldiers’ Loads
Ortiz was one of three speakers addressing new ideas for outfitting soldiers. Joseph K. Hitt, program manager of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, said that new technology could literally lighten soldiers’ loads. Muscle and joint injuries are the primary reason that soldiers are evacuated from the battlefield, put on limited duty, or discharged. “One of the predictors of musculoskeletal injuries are the loads we carry,” he said; the weight of soldiers’ loads has jumped from about 40 pounds during the Civil War to more than 100 pounds today.
One approach to easing that burden is to use walking robots that can hold hundreds of pounds of equipment and follow alongside soldiers. But another strategy is to create wearable technologies that reduce fatigue, which increases the pressure on joints and causes injury, Hitt said. DARPA launched the Warrior Web program in 2011 to invest in innovative ideas for developing a lightweight undersuit that could actually remove forces from the body. “What we’re trying to do is develop a skin suit to assist you in carrying those 48 kilograms,” Hitt said. Strategies from research teams around the world include a “bounding backpack” that lowers the forces from a pack and devices that stabilize joints or that apply a “pull” on the ankles as a soldier walks, allowing him to move faster with less energy.
Soldiers could also benefit from technologies that build entirely new functions into fabrics—clothes themselves replacing equipment. Karen K. Gleason, an associate dean for engineering at MIT, discussed how she creates fibers with enhanced functionality, such as the ability to conduct electricity without being burdened by wires or batteries. She does this by coating fiber-based surfaces with gossamer films of materials using a technique called chemical vapor printing. Polymers can be vaporized through chemical reactions and then deposited on materials such as fabric and paper, using a stencil to print patterns on the material. “We actually can vapor-print photovoltaic cells,” Gleason said, which could be integrated into an array of paper or fabric products to power portable electronics with the sun’s energy. In the same way, clothing could be coated with a substance that repels bacteria, or that detects a toxin in food or the air.
Oren Milstein, the president and chief scientific officer of StemRad Inc., presented a very different kind of armor in a belt that protects emergency responders from the effects of radiation, which current clothing can’t block. Milstein pointed out that the radiation poisoning that threatened workers and first responders during the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters resulted from gamma radiation damage to bone marrow. Materials that shield against gamma radiation are extremely heavy, making an entire suit impractical. Milstein and his colleagues estimate that people need at least 2 percent of their bone marrow intact to survive without a bone marrow transplant; with that goal in mind, they designed a belt that shields the pelvis, where most of the body’s bone marrow is held.
Clothes to Improve Health
In much subtler ways, clothes have the potential to improve health and the delivery of health care. Vijay K. Varadan, who holds the Twenty-First Century Endowed Chair in Nano- and Bio-Technologies and Medicine at the University of Arkansas, said that small, textile-based sensor systems can fill a major gap in medicine: doctors often take measures of patients’ health status only during short, occasional visits to a clinic. Varadan has been embedding small printed electronic components in bras and shirts to measure functions such as the beating of the heart. With clothing filled with sensors, “we are now constantly monitoring your conditions all the time,” he said.
Wearables That Feel Like Your Body
The end of the symposium featured two very different aspects of clothing’s future: its technological enhancement and its design. Babak Parviz, the project head of Google Glass, talked about Google’s controversial new technology—eyeglasses embedded with computer, phone, and camera—which he argued is a step toward changing how people communicate and use technology. Although cell phones have enabled communication that is untethered from a particular location, both cell phones and email are focused on speech and writing. “What we wanted to do with Glass was to see if we could design a device from the get-go . . . for pictorial communication,” he said. Videos taken with Glass show people your point of view, from your own eyes. Its design also brings communication and computing more seamlessly into the body’s movements; it knows where your head is turning, and it can be used with a light touch or verbal command. “This device is actually quite intimate to the user,” Parviz said, and it heralds a future when wearable devices will feel like they’re part of us.
Neri Oxman, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, called for imagining new ways in which clothing can be designed and produced. “The skin is perhaps the most sophisticated form of clothing,” she said. Though one continuous layer, its properties change depending on whether it needs to protect, sweat, or absorb sunlight. With that in mind, Oxman and her collaborators have designed products on a computer to achieve the precise shape, stiffness, or softness desired in each location, and then printed the designs in three-dimensional forms using a variety of materials in a 3-D printer. The result is a single continuous object with properties that vary, such as a helmet that cushions bone while protecting soft tissue, or a wrist sleeve for carpal tunnel syndrome that both cushions and supports. Like other speakers, Oxman is drawing on inspiration from nature for new ways of creating clothing and other products: one goal of her group is to create a 3-D printing technique that imitates the weaving of silkworms.
“We’re really on the cusp of a new era in science and technology,” said John Huth, a codirector of the science program for the Radcliffe Institute’s Academic Ventures program and the Donner Professor of Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who spoke at the beginning and end of the symposium. The next frontier is technology we wear on our bodies rather than carry in our pockets and purses—when our clothes will truly give our bodies new powers.
Courtney Humphries is a freelance science writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Science, Wired, and other publications.