Wearable Tech World Feature Article
June 29, 2015

University of Tokyo Researchers Create Stretchable, Conductive Ink

Readers here know all about wearables: fitness watches, motion-sensing arm bands, and smart glasses. Those are all great, but what if the next wearable was actually a part of the clothing people wear every day? Researchers at the University of Tokyo are working to make that a reality.

Researchers recently announced a new technology they have created that will allow for the printing of conductive material directly onto fabric. This means manufacturers could make smart shirts, for instance, that monitor heart rate or smart shoes that can sense the number of steps a person has taken on a run. With enough future advancement, there would be no need for extra wearables because the wearable would be the clothing itself.

The announcement speaks of a special conductive ink that does not harden as traditional printed electronics would. Instead, the ink is able to stretch and become a comfortable, wearable part of pieces of clothing.

Professor Takao Someya is the lead researcher for this project at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Engineering. Someya spoke about the goals and technique the team has used to accomplish its unique printing process.

“Our team aims to develop comfortable wearable devices,” Someya said. “This ink was developed as part of this endeavor. The biggest challenge was obtaining high conductivity and stretchability with a simple one-step printing process. We were able to achieve this by use of a surfactant that allowed the silver flakes to self-assemble at the surface of the printed pattern, ensuring high conductivity.”

A report on the matter at TechCrunch notes that the ink includes silver flakes, organic solvent, fluorine rubber, and fluorine surfactant and can stretch to more than three times its normal length and retain high conductivity. TechCrunch further reports on the important idea behind this new technology, which is that it can allow for the beginnings of completely integrated smartwear.

Although chips and transistors are not yet able to stretch like this new ink, the first stage of production for this breakthrough could be in the way it is used to supplement those computer parts. Sections of clothing that need to bend can bend without restriction, so even modern watches, arm bands, or glasses could conform to more advanced, more comfortable shapes for each user. The technology is not yet in production, but it could soon change how all types of wearables are made and what future looks like for the overall market.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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