Spring 2020

Getting smarter

A new temperature-responsive textile powered only by body heat shows potential for medical, aerospace, and commercial uses

Julianna Abel, Ph.D., and her graduate students are weaving smart metals into fabrics for novel uses.

Anyone who has ever wrestled with compression stockings knows the challenge: While the garment needs to fit tightly to do its job, putting the darned thing on can seem nearly impossible.

A new development in wearable technology at the University of Minnesota could change that. Partnering with NASA, researchers at the U’s Design of Active Materials and Structures Lab and Wearable Technology Lab have created a temperature-responsive textile that can be used to make self-fitting garments powered only by body heat.

The textiles resemble typical knits, except that they’re made using a special type of active materials known as shape-memory alloys, which change shape when heated.

These knits can be used in custom garments that easily transform from loose to tight-fitting, and even bend in unique ways to conform to irregularly shaped regions of the body, such as the back of the knee.

“This is an exciting new opportunity to create garments that can physically transform over time, which has significant implications for medical, aerospace, and commercial applications,” says Brad Holschuh, Ph.D., codirector of the Wearable Technology Lab and an assistant professor in the College of Design.

Next, the U research team is looking to integrate the textiles into full-size garments, which could solve a variety of problems where fit and conformance to the body are important, like medical-grade compression stockings. 

Shape-memory alloys also could be used in medical devices like stents and in orthodontic wires, says Julianna Abel, Ph.D., a Benjamin Mayhugh Assistant Professor in the College of Science and Engineering.

“It gives me a lot of drive and passion to discover new uses for these really unique materials,” Abel says, “to realize applications that we may not have even thought of before.”