YOSUKE SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — Picture an urban hospital in the not-so-distant future — say, 2020. A surgeon puts on scrubs and gloves made from a special material. A monitor in front of the doctor displays a patient on an island hundreds of kilometers away. Beside the patient’s bed stands a robot holding a scalpel.
The surgeon looks at the screen and moves the scalpel. Almost simultaneously, the robot moves its scalpel the same way.
Researchers in Japan are getting closer to making that scenario possible. The key is what our hypothetical doctor wears — something scientists call piezoelectric fabric. The piezoelectric effect is a phenomenon in which a charge is generated when pressure is applied to an object.
“This cloth generates electric energy,” Teijin’s Tomoyoshi Yamamoto said of a fabric that, to the untrained eye, appears ordinary. Yamamoto is tasked with promoting cutting-edge materials related to energy and the environment. The cloth in question was developed with western Japan’s Kansai University.
The fabric is even washable. A little pressure starts the real magic — the energy that is generated can be converted into electrical signals, transmitted wirelessly and recorded as data. By wrapping the cloth around a person’s arm, for instance, it should be possible to mimic the movements of the arm.
The potential applications of this go beyond remote surgery. A manufacturer could use the fabric to allow robots to copy the movements of workers with highly technical skills, such as lens polishing. A hairstyle created by a Hollywood beautician could be easily reproduced. In running shoes, piezoelectric fabric concealed in the soles could provide data on the movements of Olympic athletes, aiding the development of sneakers that boost speed and agility.
A sample of piezoelectric fabric: The white areas are polylactic acid fibers with piezoelectric functions, while the dark lines are carbon fibers that serve as electrodes.
Another feature of piezoelectric fabric is that, by applying electric energy, it can be made to expand or contract. Consequently, data on a professional golfer’s swing could be sent to a garment made with the fabric worn by an amateur, guiding their swing so that it resembles the pro’s.
“Piezoelectric fabric conceals innumerable possibilities,” Yamamoto said.
The secret to making piezoelectric fabric is polylactic acid. Because this acid is derived from plants and does not give off toxic substances when burned, it has become a common choice for food packaging, trash bags and windowed envelopes.
To create the fabric, polylactic acid is made into threads around 0.02mm thick. Carbon fibers are also made into threads and the two types are interwoven. Electric energy generated by the polylactic acid is emitted via the carbon threads, which play the role of electrodes.
“Polylactic acid has no ill effects on the human body,” Yamamoto explained. Plus, it should allow fabric to be produced on conventional weaving machines. Until recently, the typical piezoelectric material had been lead zirconate titanate, or PZT. Because it is a ceramic, it requires special processing equipment, and the lead content makes it a potential health hazard.
Yet another characteristic of Teijin’s piezoelectric fabric is that, depending on how the cloth is woven, it can detect different kinds of movements. A plain weave makes it possible to detect bending, while a satin weave is receptive to twisting. This quirk expands the potential uses.
Durability is a sticking point: To be practical for daily use, the fabric must be able to withstand several hundred washings. Production costs also need to be reduced. Nevertheless, Yamamoto is optimistic that the fabric will become commercially viable in two or three years.
More data, more possibilities
Teijin is not the only Japanese textile company developing cloth that collects data on movements. Toray Industries, in partnership with the NTT telecommunications group, developed a cloth called hitoe, which measures the wearer’s heart rate.
The fabric was created by incorporating a polymer with the ability to pass electricity into very fine polyester fibers. It is designed to fit well and breathe, and combined with a smartphone, it makes it easy to monitor one’s pulse. Sportswear maker Goldwin late last year released a shirt made with the material.
The rise of data-capturing clothes is likely to coincide with the explosion of what many call the Internet of Things. By 2020, some 50 billion devices are expected to be connected — from home electronics to cars to industrial machinery. Companies like Google and Apple have rushed to create wearable, Internet-enabled gadgetry, too. While early generation wearables include things like wristbands, wristwatches and eyewear, some believe high-tech clothing could eventually trump them all.
A wristband, for example, collects data from only one part of the body. A shirt — or a surgeon’s scrubs — would gather a much broader, and thus more valuable, range of information.
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