Could Nanotechnology-Enhanced Fabrics Yield High-Tech Clothing?

High-tech clothing could help us save energy in the future. Could nanotechnology be used to create fabrics that modify their insulating or heat-transferring capabilities on demand?   Clothing already exists with built in solar cells and connections to charge one’s cell phone or MP3 player.  In the future, though, saving energy on our biggest uses such as home heating will be important, and clothing that allows us to turn down the thermostat could be a great application for nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology could provide chameleon-like fabrics with amazing characteristics. Imagine a fabric that changes color and reflectivity to maintain an internal temperature. If the reflectivity of the fabric extends into the infrared range, it could reflect heat inward to keep the wearer warm or reflect heat from the outer surface to keep the wearer cool. At the same time, it could allow wicking of moisture and control permeability to water and/or air to help regulate temperature and keep the wearer from becoming wet with sweat. How might this be done?

Increased sophisitication will require more complex devices larger than nano-scale, but still microscopic. Nanotechnology is probably “thinking too small” when it comes to adaptive fabrics, as the functional sophistication required may be too great for true nanobots. Much larger, though still microscopic, “micromachines” might be more effective because they can support more complex sensing, decision making, and operating capabilities. Individual micromachines might be able to sense temperature, moisture, and incident radiation, however, and make the decisions and changes required to regulate temperature and humidity inside the garment.

High-tech fabrics and clothing will evolve as technology progresses. Initial approaches might provide fabrics pre-set to specific temperatures, and a reasonable range of temperatures could be learned through some relatively simple research. Later on, however, as the functional capabilities of the fabrics are extended, it might be possible to reprogram the fabric via radio waves, and, in fact, this might be far easier to implement than any direct, wired sort of controls. At first I considered having a button that would enable one to change the settings of the fabric, but then I realized that going wireless greatly reduces the complexity of the task and allows all parts of the fabric to be reprogrammed without messy wiring.

Sophisticated functionality means controls for your clothing. Nanotechnology control systems will evolve in (hopefully) standardized ways. When you buy your first nanotech devices, you would receive a remote control for it. Since remote controls are already becoming a management issue in some households as their numbers expand, it would be best to standardize the control systems so that a single controller can be purchased that would then be able to control all of one’s nano and microtechnology devices. This would require a standard wireless control interface, but such things are already in use in the forms of WiFi and Bluetooth networking standards. In the future everyone above the age of perhaps 5 might well have their own little remote controller hanging on a cord around their neck or somewhere on their person, just for managing the technologies around them.

Controlling your clothes by thinking will come eventually, possibly in a century or so. Eventually ever-tinier technology will yield what, back in the 1980’s, we used to call the “terminal implant”. In those days computers were huge, and to use one you had to have a terminal, a machine like a large printer with a keyboard or a video screen with a keyboard, that allowed you to type instructions to the computer and read the output on the screen or printout. Our guess back then was that someday a tiny device would be implanted in one’s neck which would interface directly with the nervous system. It would allow one to receive computer output in one’s brain and send commands and data to the computer by just thinking about it. If such a technology could be developed, possibly enabled by Nano- and microtechnology, it could permit you to control the fabric in your clothing (and just about anything else) just by thinking about it.

Many problems must be addressed before you’ll be able to control your clothes with your brain. Such a control system and bring up an amazing array of potential functions with an exponentially greater range of advantages and problems that sound like science fiction. Would people with the implants effectively have telepathy with others who are similarly equipped? Would hackers quickly find ways to control the devices, and to control our perceptions? Would people so-equipped become very “borg-like” – all sharing the same information at the same time so that their opinions evolve to be nearly identical? There are many questions to be asked and answered in our future, and future technologies create questions we could not have predicted.

It’s a crazy world out there in the future, but we need to be thinking, planning, and working towards it now (or we’ll have to take what we get).  As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim


One response to “Could Nanotechnology-Enhanced Fabrics Yield High-Tech Clothing?

  1. Check out this article in today’s Technology Review Emerging Technologies Update:

    Happened on your article today, and the TR article, and recognized serendipity when I saw it!

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