new "Smart" clothes possible thanks to color-changing ink

A reactive ink can detect a number of environmental variables, and has now been implemented in silk clothing

A new color-changing ink could aid in health and environment monitoring

For example, clothing may switch colors when exposed to sweat, or when a dangerous gas is detected. 

Today’s wearable sensor technology – smart watches – use electronics to monitor a person’s heart rate, blood sugar levels, and more. Researchers at Tufts University’s Silklab have created a new silk-based ink that can respond to the presence of chemicals near the body. 

Silk’s characteristics allow for the material to “encase the color-changing sensory compounds without interrupting their functions”, says Fiorenzo Omenetto, an engineer at the Silklab. 

The researchers creation is an improvement on an earlier version that worked with printers and sheets of paper. Their newer version is “easier to produce and can now be put on a wider array of surfaces”, says Omenetto. 

The team created the ink by mixing reactive molecules with the silk fibers in clothing items. The reactive molecules are exposed to certain variables, and change how the silk fibers appear. These changes, when compared to a baseline, can be used to identify sweat, dehydration, and fatigue levels, among many other characteristics. 

The technology also has a bright future, as Omenetto states, the ink could also be used to “track environmental changes in a room”, or to “follow disease progression”. 

While today’s wearable devices are generally bulky and uncomfortable, the new ink technology will work with the clothing that people wear everyday. As Tyler Ray, mechanical engineer at the University of Hawaii puts it, the new ink technology, “has the potential to transform wearables from a novelty into a clinical-grade physiological measurement tool”. There are of course, kinks that need to be worked out, such as the effects of different lighting or color-blindness, but the new technology is certainly beneficial, and can be revolutionary in the future. 

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