While people don’t often associate the textiles and fabrics industry with cutting edge or crucial technological developments, it is in fact a hugely important area for both. If anything, advances in textiles are some of the most important innovations used by a modern society at nearly all levels. After all, the fabrics and textiles developed by research labs, commercial development facilities such as OTEX Specialty Narrow Fabrics and others are crucial for thousands of practical applications.
Specialty fibers play a role in emergency rescue equipment, medical applications, heavy industry, space exploration, scientific research and thousands of normal consumer uses. For example, just imagine all the things established (but once very new) fabric technologies like nylon and polyester are used for today in place of long-used natural materials like cotton or wool. But what does the future hold for narrow fabrics and specialty fibers? Well, it has the potential for many further advances and wholly new developments. Here’s a look at several of the most exciting.
Both active and passive smart textiles of all kinds exist already, and they’re being used in numerous advanced settings. Also often called e-textiles, these can come in many forms that keep developing in new eays. The essential objective of all of them is to cover all the basics that more traditional materials performed for their uses, but better, in a way that makes users’ lives even safer and more comfortable with new innovations that include increasingly compact electronics.
Passive Smart Textiles
In the case of passive smart textiles, your first thought might be of specialty fibers that include electronics or specialized sensors, but while this applies for active smart textiles, the passive kind keep things a bit simpler in very effective ways.
Another fairly recent example involves clever uses of nanoparticles by impregnating polyester cloth with tin-doped indium oxide nanoparticles. These then absorb infrared radiation (sunlight for example) and transfer its thermal energy to moisture on the fabric’s surface, thus rapidly drying it for better heat storage.
Because these materials can create or conserve warmth far beyond what normal fabrics in cold-weather clothing can do, they will see increased use in emergency survival situations, polar expeditions and industrial clothing developments for extreme-weather commercial explorations.
Self-heating gloves that contain a fine conductive yarn are another superb example of this. By using small electric heating systems, these gloves, or other articles of clothing, can offer long-term protective heat production for a person in the wilderness while reducing the overall bulk of the clothing being used.
Then of course there are antimicrobial fabrics. Build in ways that discourage or even actively destroy the presence of microbes, these materials can be used for surgical gloves, medical garments of all kinds and for fabrics commonly used in situations where bacteria can pose a danger to human life. Materials impregnated with agents such as zinc, silver compounds, QACs and other substances can provide a basic type of antimicrobial textile that will see increasing use in a world recently shocked by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Other near-future developments in nano-materials that are electrically or materially hostile to microbe adhesion are only going to continue developing. All of these are examples of passive smart textile technology at work.
Active Smart Textiles
Another exciting and varied future is possible with active smart textiles. These include fabric technologies that embed active electronic and mechanical functionality at an increasingly microscopic level to make user’s lives much safer or more comfortable.
A basic example of active smart textiles involves the use of electronic monitoring sensors inside the very clothing used by both medical staff and patients to detect dangers in their heart rates, body temperature or blood pressure. Materials with smart adjustment capability could also be designed to form fit any person they’re used on, allowing for generic hospital garments to be made rapidly available without worrying about specific user sizes.
The same active smart technologies for fabrics could also be applied for scientific field researchers, military forces operatives, police officers, emergency rescue crews and commercial explorers in to keep them safe during exposed situations.
Imagine for example narrow fabrics and specialty fibers with their own internal power generating capacity being able to produce heat in a survival situation, or clothing textiles that monitor a soldier’s vital statistics and send them to a forward operating base for updates about that person’s health and location for the sake of rescue. With embedded electronic technology in active smart textiles, the essential ingredient is ta continuous improvement in how finely these smart systems are added to textile and fabric products.
As sensors, battery power and circuitry become smaller in the near future, or even shrink in size down to the nano-scale, it will be possible to add many more electronic parts with both passive and active capabilities right into the finest part of a narrow fabric’s weave. This will have many applications for users working in hostile, complex or dangerous natural situations. It will also make average people’s lives safer in ways that will only develop over time.
Ultra-strong and Other New Specialty Fibers
Aside from smart textiles and fabrics being designed in the near future for antimicrobial, self-heating and electronically intelligent capabilities, other developments are also possible. These can include fabrics that self regenerate, fabrics that offer superior UV protection for wearers or surfaces and fabrics that repel water or grime better than anything available today.
For all of these developments, the addition of new polymers, metallic compounds and specialized nano-scale weaves into existing fabrics can create textiles that perform better at specific tasks than anything that was previously possible. This could be achieved without even going into developments that involve fabric-integrated electronics or entirely new fabric fundamentals. For example, many existing materials such as cotton, nylon or polyester could be greatly enhanced for water resistance or UV resilience by the addition of innovations such as zinc oxide particles or ultra-thin nano-whiskers derived from hydrocarbons.
Another major area of development will simply be extremely strong fabrics. The need for ultra-materials is extraordinary in a world that keeps pushing the boundaries of human exploration and resource use. By developing narrow fabrics and textiles with immense tensile strength even at extreme thinness, we can actively try to reduce the need for more resource exploitation for our manufacturing, outdoor exploration, commercial construction and other needs.
Yes, there are scientific theories –such as Jevon’s Paradox– for why even this might not help. However, being able to assemble garments, clothes or construction materials with fabrics that barely ever break or tear will be a huge benefit for human safety and reduced materials replacement losses.
Nanofibers are a good test case for ultra-strong narrow fabric development. By distributing nanoparticles in matrices of certain polymers, it’s already possible to create tougher, more abrasion-resistant fabrics. Furthermore, nanofibers spread through a weave of composite fibers can further increase their tensile strength to an enormous degree. These examples are only part of what’s emerging with specialty fiber technologies.
The horizons of the above techniques and many others are just barely being cracked now through applied research by companies with decades of experience in the field. Their potential for future development is absolutely enormous.