Smart Fibers Could Bring Smarter Clothes

We have smart cars and smart phones, why not smart clothes? They might be coming soon. Materials scientist Yoel Fink describes his work developing fibers that take photos, listen and transmit sound. He says a shirt may one day monitor your health by tracking body sounds.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, futuristic functional fibers. My next guest says we should expect more from our clothes. Sure, they keep us warm or protect us from the sun, but they could be working a lot harder. They could, for example, be monitoring our body functions, listening for the small changes in sound that might indicate a blocked artery or a tumor, or a uniform can monitor air for hazardous conditions, detecting dangerous levels of carbon monoxide or other gases. That would be useful for firemen or for soldiers.

All it would take for our clothes to work harder is the right fibers. And that's just what Yoel Fink has been working on. He joins me out more to talk about it. Yoel Fink is an associate professor of material science and a principal investigator at MIT's Research Lab Of Electronics, also chairman of the board of the OmniGuide company. He joins us from the campus.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor YOEL FINK (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Yes. Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: How are you?

Prof. FINK: Hi - I'm doing very well, and I'd like to say hi to the listeners and to all the kids that are on summer vacation. I have four back home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You're a SCIENCE FRIDAY veteran. Looking up, we had you on in 1998, I think it was.

Prof. FINK: Exactly. We were talking then about a new mirror that I developed as a graduate student. At the time, Ira, you were more interested with the fog on the morning mirror that you look at. I was trying to talk about a higher form of reflectivity.

FLATOW: There you go. And you made a totally reflective mirror, if I remember.

Prof. FINK: That's right.

FLATOW: And whatever happened to that idea?

Prof. FINK: Well, that turned - that highly reflective mirror turns into a highly reflective fiber, which, in turn, actually turn into a medical device that is being used now a thousand times every month to treat patients, to remove tumors, to recover hearing and to allow patients to breathe better.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Prof. FINK: And, in fact, this month, on the cover of a journal called Endourology, doctors at Columbia University used one of our fibers with a surgical robot to remove prostate cancer.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. So you're - you just keep moving on. Your dual theme is that you have fibers and you find new ways to do things with them.

Prof. FINK: Exactly.

FLATOW: And tell us...

Prof. FINK: In...

FLATOW: Go ahead. I mean, just tell us about this new fiber idea that you've come up with, a fiber that can actually make sound and could listen for sounds.

Prof. FINK: Exactly. And I guess coming out of that first interview, Ira, I felt you weren't listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FINK: And so we set out to work on that. And, you know, at MIT, it's a technology for every problem. And we have the solution for you.

FLATOW: You do? You do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FINK: Yeah.

FLATOW: Tell us about it.

Prof. FINK: It's a shirt that listens, or maybe I should say converts acoustic signal into an electric signal.

FLATOW: Hmmm.

Prof. FINK: That's the latest. Interestingly, all the fibers that have come out of my lab, all rely and are based on the same principle. So I'll tell you about the new ones, but I'd really be happy to share with the listeners the material science that is behind them.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about what they do and then we'll talk about how much material science we can get into. You don't - you haven't made any clothing yet, right? There's no clothing that uses your fibers...

Prof. FINK: Well...

FLATOW: ...at least not - I can't go out and buy it yet.

Prof. FINK: You can't go out and buy it, but, in fact, some of our collaborators at the Army Natick Lab here in Massachusetts have woven our fibers into fabrics. So that, in fact, has already happened.

FLATOW: And what do they want to do with your fabric?

Prof. FINK: Well, I think you mentioned right in the opening statement is that some of these new functional fibers could be used for monitoring body temperature, could be looking at very slight changes in the sounds that our body is emitting, could be used to identify wounds. You know, if a soldier is wounded in the battlefield, some of these functional fibers could actually communicate, identify where he is being wounded and ascertain what his situation is. So, you know, so there are - they and we are working on ways to better protect.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And could they then make a sound themselves, the fibers?

Prof. FINK: Yeah. So the material we're using is a transducer. It is a piezoelectric domain or material within the fiber. So you first need to imagine a very thin strand, perhaps somewhere between a fishing line and a strand of hair. When you were to - if you were to look at this at the - in the cross section, what you'd see is a domain that is a piezoelectric domain. And that converts acoustic energy into electric energy. So you could - what you could do is either or make a sound and have it basically produce an electric signal, or you could apply a voltage to it and have it produce sounds. So it actually works in both directions.

FLATOW: It's a material that when it gets squoze, squeezed - whatever the right word is - when you squeeze it, it gives off a little electrical pulse, right? So when the sound wave, which squeezes it, it gives off a little electrical pulse. And vice versa - if you put a little electrical pulse into it, it'll vibrate in an opposite direction. Would that be the right summation?

Prof. FINK: Yeah. That, I think, is a fairly accurate summation. It changes it's dimensions upon an application of electric field or a voltage.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now you talked about the military uses of it. What kind of civilian uses might be made?

Prof. FINK: Well, you know, kids are out, kids are out and on vacation, and let's start with something that would appeal to our younger generation. So one of the things kids love to do is listen to music. Today, the way you do that, is you put plugs in your ears. That gives you a way to listen to music, also perhaps not hear the background noise or the call of your parents.

Well, imagine now a shirt that actually is made of fibers that emits sound. It turns out that you could use those fibers to focus sound. You could actually focus the sound into your ears from a cloth or a shirt that you're wearing. So that's one of the things that we're actually working on in the lab right now.

FLATOW: So I would wear a shirt and if I put my iTunes on there, I would be the only one who would hear it coming out of, let's say, my shoulders or something...

Prof. FINK: Exactly. It would focus sound into your ear. And that actually is an experiment that we're currently doing. It turns out you could focus sound just like you could focus light. And the way to do that is by arranging microphones that are operating in unison in close proximity. That's what fibers allow you to do.

FLATOW: Hmm. I guess a hat would be a no-brainer, a ski mask or something. A ski hat...

Prof. FINK: Exactly.

FLATOW: ...right over your ears then...

Prof. FINK: Yeah. So that could be, that could be another application. One of the things that gets us very excited, you know, coming from the field of health care, is using fibers to monitor our bodies. It's very intuitive to us that when we go to get checked up, the first thing the doctor does is he listens to our lungs and to our heart. Our body is all about flow, a flow of oxygen and the flow of blood. Now, when you flow, you're - obviously there's a sound that's emitted and in particular when flow is obstructed, there actually is an acoustic signature.

Now, the doctor could listen to the flow at any given point, but there's no way he's going to remember how your body sounded a week, in a month, and a year ago. And so monitoring these very slight changes, we believe, is going to offer a way to identify problems well before they become acute problems.

FLATOW: Let me go to the phones. Martin in Santa Clara. Hi, Martin.

MARTIN (Caller): Hey. Thanks for taking my call. Certainly this is a great topic. One thing that I wanted to ask is, is it possible that this could be - this fabric could be utilized as a form of exoskeleton, where you've got not only, you know, basically passive reaction to the environment but maybe have zones that are that, you know, are electrically induced to help people that are maybe paralyzed, you know, actually activate systems that will allow them to walk or even people that have breathing difficulties where it would, you know, provide pumping action or at least indications that they need more air and they would provide, you know, assistance from that perspective. So you know, to me it seemed like there's a ton of applications beyond just passive monitoring and understanding of the environment.

FLATOW: Good - thanks for that call, Martin.

Prof. FINK: Yeah. I think the idea that was just mentioned is a great one, and in fact, part of, you know, the funding that we received is the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology. And they're - in fact, exactly these types of ideas are being worked on, where fibers pick up a signal, but they're actually - they tie in to a larger system that then allows higher level of functionality. So I think it's a great idea.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Les in Raleigh. Hi, Les.

LES (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LES: I read an article somewhere recently - I don't remember where. But it talked about the possibility of having some sort of technology embedded in fibers that would be a part of one's clothing, maybe shoes or an outer garment that would give guidance to the blind as they travel. Maybe it would sense if there were buildings close by, sort of like a GPS-type thing. Have you heard of anything about - like that or familiar with any possibilities along those lines?

Prof. FINK: Yeah. Well, Ira if you recall, the last time I was on your show was a year ago?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FINK: And at that time we talked about fabrics that see.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. FINK: We developed fibers that were capable of identifying light, picking up light, of sensing light. And what we showed is that when you weave a bunch of these fibers together to form a fabric, the fabric could take on a function that is more than the sum of the parts and could actually extract images. That's one of the ideas that we've been working on. And it's not yet - hasn't yet happened in terms of a product, but definitely a very exciting opportunity.

FLATOW: But now you have both functions, sight and sound.

Prof. FINK: Exactly.

FLATOW: You have fabric for both.

Prof. FINK: Exactly.

FLATOW: The mind boggles at what's going on in your head.

Prof. FINK: Exactly. And it's a very exciting time to be in the field of material discovery. And you know, one of the exciting opportunities here is to try to get some of our younger generation inspired and excited about the opportunities here.

FLATOW: Are you trying to do that? I know when you came on the program, you shouted out to your students.

Prof. FINK: Exactly.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) in this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FINK: Yes. Well, to my students I'd like not to shout at them, but to speak softly and particularly to thank them for doing such a phenomenal job. But broadly speaking, it's important to me that younger folks around the country consider careers in material discovery. And I think it's a great opportunity to be able to deliver that message on your program.

FLATOW: And you know, that's not a science that we hear much about. We've been doing this program for 20 years and we always hear material scientists coming on and saying, you know, you talk about basic research and medicine, you talk about physics. We never talk about material science. And...

Prof. FINK: Exactly.

FLATOW: And that's what you do.

Prof. FINK: Exactly. That's what I do and the group that is working with me does every day.

FLATOW: I want to wish you good luck, and thank you for taking time to be with us.

Prof. FINK: Well, thank you, Ira. And hopefully we'll talk soon.

FLATOW: You're always welcome to come back come back when you've got some more of that material stuff to share with us, when we can buy some of it.

Prof. FINK: Okay.

FLATOW: All right.

Prof. FINK: Well, you take care.

FLATOW: You too. Yoel Fink is associate professor of material science and principal investigator at MIT's Research Lab of Electronics and chairman of the board of OmniGuide company.

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