Researchers have found a very clever way to coat fabric with a breathable metallic layer that can heal itself, repel bacteria and conduct electricity.
The “liquid metal” coating, described in a paper in Advanced Materials Technologies, could be the basis for smart textiles and wearable electronics.
The international team of researchers say coating is simple: just dip a clean piece of fabric into a liquid for a few seconds. It can be done at room temperature.
The liquid in question is a solution of the metals gallium and indium, suspended in isopropanol – which is often used in hand sanitisers.
When gallium and indium are combined, they become a liquid at room temperature.
The solution is prepared by sonicating (vibrating with sound) the metals in isopropanol for 45 minutes.
Once dried with a hot-air gun, the metals form tiny drops on the fabric, each a fraction of a micrometre in size.
Co-senior author, Dr Vi Khanh Truong, deputy director of the Biomedical Nanoengineering Laboratory at Flinders University, says the particles look “sort of like blueberries”.
A thin, oxygen-based layer forms on the particles, making them non-conductive.
“But when you press them, you can form a certain conductive pathway,” says Truong.
This means you can build an electronic circuit in the fabric – just by applying enough force to rupture the oxide layer.
“We can customise conductive pathways as we want it,” says Truong.
And by adding more coating, you can make the fabric more conductive.
While neither gallium nor indium are abundant metals, the process needs less than a micrometre of each in its fabric coating.
“So far, it’s quite low cost, because the amount of the material we’re using it quite small,” says Truong.
The conductive pathways can also heal themselves when cut.
Plus, the metals have low toxicity, and are antimicrobial. The researchers showed that the textiles could protect against the infection-causing bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus in the lab.
As well as repelling pathogens, the fabric could be worn for a longer period of time without needing to be washed.
The researchers also made their coated fabric patches into electrocardiograph (ECG) electrodes, and found they performed as well as commercial gel-based electrodes.
Truong says that the textiles could be used in things like antimicrobial hospital bed covers and patient clothing, monitoring heart rate as well as preventing infections.
“The next thing is to, with planning, integrate them into actual textiles,” he says.
The US-based researchers in the team, led by Professor Michael Dickey at North Carolina State University, US, have recently shown that this mixture can be used to make an elastic.
Originally published by Cosmos as Amazing biomedicine: Liquid metal could make breathable, antimicrobial smart fabrics which could measure heart rate, and even heal itself
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.