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Power Grab: Smarter, stronger and more powerful textiles

December 1st, 2019 / By: / Feature

Today’s textiles are stronger, smarter and more powerful than ever, delivering an array of functionalities that open up a world of opportunities for industries across the board. 

by Pamela Mills-Senn

A determined effort is underway to devise highly functional fabrics and textile-based products. Examples of powerful innovations run the gamut from electrically conducting materials to tape that is as strong as steel, yet so lightweight it practically floats. As the companies in this article illustrate, powerful products and opportunities are no longer on the horizon; they’re on everyone’s doorstep. 

Solarizing for power

Fabric manufacturers are increasingly looking to make their fabrics more functional through the addition of power generation, enabling them to collect solar energy via flexible solar cells incorporated into the fabric, says Todd Dalland, cofounder and president of Brooklyn, N.Y., Pvilion, which provides this integration.

Businesses are increasingly looking for ways to utilize solar energy and are turning to companies like Pvilion to help harness the sun’s power. Google came to Pvilion for help in creating these solar shade structures. Installed in the company’s parking area, the shades allow employees to charge their electric vehicles while at work. Photo: Pvilion.

“Companies manufacturing fabric products are working with Pvilion to solarize their products,” says Dalland. “As a result, these traditional fabric-based products are now generating electricity. Since fabric is an ideal material for making flexible solar panels, it has created an opportunity for companies making fabric products to enter the solar energy business.”

A plethora of fabric products can be solarized, including awnings, tents, fabric billboards and structures, marine products, narrow fabrics, truck tarps and geotextile installations. Clothing manufacturers needn’t miss out. For example, Tommy Hilfiger approached the company for help in solarizing its women’s and men’s jackets, enabling wearers to remotely charge cell phones in the pockets of their clothing.

Dyneema® Composite Fabrics from DSM Dyneema are being used for all manner of applications including tents and shelters, such as this Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Among other characteristics, the composite materials are waterproof and breathable allowing for the elimination of condensation in cold and damp weather conditions. Photo: DSM Dyneema.

“And Google™ came to Pvilion to help create solar shade structures in their parking lots to charge electric cars while their employees are inside at work,” Dalland adds. “The U.S. Army came to us to help create solar fabric tents that power their own communications devices, lights and refrigerators and to reduce soldier dependency on gasoline supply lines.”

Other projects include the installation of six solar shade umbrellas made with Sunbrella® fabric at the Battery Conservancy in New York City. Currently under construction and scheduled for launch in spring 2020, the umbrellas will enable visitors to charge phones and tablets. In September 2019, eight solar shade frame tent modules using Sioen and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabrics opened at the New York Botanical Gardens. Serving as food kiosks, the tents allow for powering phones, tablets and architectural lighting.

This Specialized S-Work shoe relies on the four-directional Dyneema® Composite Fabric from DSM Dyneema. The directional fibers are thermo-bonded to eliminate stretch in the heel area. The fabric creates foot stability and a comfortable hold without additional weight. Photo: DSM Dyneema.

For this latter project, Pvilion turned the entire fabric tent top into one continuous south-facing slope, allowing for four times as many solar panels. “Most frame tents have pyramidal fabric tops with slopes facing in all four directions, with only one slope facing south, which is good for solar panels,” Dalland explains. The tents generate 300 watts per module, enabling the food stalls to self-power lights, fans and registers. Customers can charge their devices at the café tables.

Fire and smoke containment

Headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., Newtex provides high-temperature fabrics and engineered systems for thermal management and fire protection. Its products are distributed globally to Fortune 500 and private industrial companies, as well as to the military and military contractors. Among the company’s offerings is Z-Block™, a line of fire- and smoke-resistant fiberglass fabrics.

Treated with a high-temperature, proprietary polymer coating and finished with a high-temperature silicone overcoat, the fabrics’ coating develops a protective, high-temperature silica layer when exposed to flame, preventing flame penetration at temperatures up to 1,800 degrees (F), says Sarah Gulack, marketing manager. 

Specialized Aircraft Rescue Firefighters (ARFF) from the San Bernardino Regional Emergency Training Center in California participate in a training exercise. Proximity protective suits constructed from aluminized fabrics, such as the Z-Flex Multilayer Aluminized Fabrics by Newtex, are designed to protect people and equipment from radiant energy, sparks, flames and molten metal splash. Photo: San Bernardino Regional Emergency Training Center.

The fabric is used for products like fire curtains, designed to prevent the spread of fire in large spaces and to channel smoke in fire containment covers, which block the spread of fire during transportation and storage, and in customized protection systems.

Another Newtex product is Z-Flex®, a line of multilayered aluminized fabrics created to protect people and equipment from radiant energy, sparks, flames and molten metal splash.

“Aluminized fabrics are used to make proximity suits and protective apparel worn by aircraft rescue firefighters and industrial firefighters, foundry workers and others exposed to extreme temperatures and related risks,” says Gulack. “Z-Flex is also used in heat-shielding blankets for the aerospace industry, heat-shielding wraps and mats for automotive applications, and in industrial blankets used to protect equipment.”

Z-Block fabrics from Newtex are fire and smoke resistant and act to restrict and isolate the spread of smoke and flames. They can be used for fire curtains, custom smoke and fire prevention systems, and for containment covers (pictured here) to prevent the spread of fire during transportation and storage aboard aircraft. Photo: Newtex.

The fabrics—which reflect up to 95 percent of radiant heat in environments up to 3,000 degrees (F)—use the latest aerospace thin-film deposition technology, applying fine, highly reflective aluminum particles to both sides of a high-temperature polymer film barrier. The Z-Flex film is then chemically and mechanically bonded to a premium substrate fabric, most often fiberglass, aramid, rayon or oxidized polyacrylonitrile (OPAN).

Gulack sees the need for products like Z-Block intensifying, particularly as people continue to rely on battery-operated devices, anticipating their associated fire risk will spark legislation mandating the use of fire- and smoke-resistant fabrics. Gulack says she’s also noticing an increased demand for Z-Flex fabrics coming from space-exploration companies.

“Aerospace engineers are using Z-Flex aluminized fabrics in custom heat shields used to optimize energy efficiency on space shuttles,” she says. “Z-Flex may even be an early visitor to Mars.”

Strength and flexibility

Lightweight, waterproof, breathable, reshapeable and invisible to X-rays, Forj Thermoplastic Tape-Ribbon was initially developed for the medical market as an alternative to traditional casting and splinting material. However, because of the lengthy medical approval process, it’s being diverted to the consumer market—although it will also eventually wind up in the medical arena, says Bruce Goodrich, vice president, operations, ResinFiber LLC.

These are just some examples of thermoplastics production techniques used by ResinFiber. Pictured are carbon and UHMWPE tapes for weaving and layup machines; braided profiles for reinforcement and structural applications; and carbon and UHMWPE fiber-reinforced plaques. Photo: ResinFiber LLC.

Located in Saco, Maine, the company provides specialized composite solutions using multiple technologies and materials. Markets include customers in the oil and gas industries, textile manufacturing, shoes, ballistics and automotive markets.

The tape combines an ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber with a low-temperature-activated thermoplastic polymer matrix, which holds the thermoplastic fiber in place, resulting in an extremely strong but light tape, says Goodrich. A 1-inch-wide piece has a tensile strength of more than 1,000 pounds, while weighing less than 0.5 pound per 100 feet.

“When layered on itself or a substrate, the bonding layer is stronger than the ribbon itself,” he says. “This is due to the proprietary processing that allows for the polymerization across the bond surface. When this occurs, the entire tape structure becomes a single homogenous unit, rather than a buildup of layers.”

The DSM Dyneema® UHMWPE fiber can replace materials like steel for commercial marine and aramid for ballistics. On a weight-by-weight basis, the fiber is 15 times stronger than steel and 40 percent stronger than aramid, yet still floats on water. This combination of strength and lightness enables the company to serve a multitude of industries. Photo: DSM Dyneema.

It can be used to repair parts like pins, rivets or bolts, and can provide emergency support to extreme loads, performing well in very cold environments. Impervious to water and corrosive chemicals, the tape is as strong as steel, yet so lightweight it practically floats, says Goodrich.

It’s currently being used to protect rubber trees from uprooting during monsoons and typhoons, and is being tested by the medical, dental and veterinary communities. For example, dentists have made bite splints from it and veterinarians have created prosthetic limbs for pets. Other opportunities include athletic protection, law enforcement, outdoor and recreation, woodworking, plumbing and work-environment protection.  

Low weight, high strength 

Headquartered in Geleen, the Netherlands, DSM Dyneema produces the UHMWPE Dyneema® fiber. On a weight-for-weight basis, the fiber is 15 times stronger than steel, 40 percent stronger than aramid, and floats on water, says Nina Romano, head of marketing communications. This combination enables the company to serve the maritime, offshore, heavy
lifting, law enforcement, aviation and sporting and lifestyle industries.

“Dyneema fiber can replace materials like steel for commercial marine and aramid for ballastics,” says Romano. “While our traditional applications improve the weight/strength of these products, the New Fabrics and Composites Segment is creating materials that couldn’t perform without our ultra-lightweight/high-strength ratios in ultra-thin fabrics.”

The Dyneema Composite Fabric is constructed from multiple oriented fiber layers that cut weight and reduce bulk while “dramatically increasing” resistance against tears, punctures and abrasion, says Romano. Because of its customizable properties, the fabric can be used in a variety of industries, ranging from outdoor sports equipment to emergency medical production and even space exploration.

Application examples include inflatables for high- and low-altitude airships, emergency rescue inflatables, mobile shelters, kites, and drone and spacecraft parachutes. The fabric has been incorporated into a cycling shoe and into tents and structures, where its waterproof and breathable material eliminates condensation in cold and damp weather conditions. It also provides easy bonding of these structures with pressure-sensitive tape, with no sewing or waterproof sealing necessary. Additionally, says Romano, the fabric’s weight is almost half that of a regular 30-denier coated nylon fabric.

“The market is looking for a fabric solution that is extremely light without compromising on strength, and strength without compromising on optimum mechanical properties,” Romano says. “Customers choose Dyneema Composite Fabric when they need a low-weight, high-tensile-strength, high-modulus material for demanding applications.”

Generating heat and electricity

As a manufacturer of conductive coated textiles, Eeonyx Corp. partners with leaders in aerospace, apparel, defense, smart-fabric pressure sensors, medical devices and electronics, says Jimmy Holliman, president and CEO of the Pinole, Calif., company. 

Currently, it’s engaged in two such efforts. One involves textile-based heaters, undertaken with DKNTec, a Warwickshire, U.K., designer and manufacturer of thin film heater material that can be printed or applied directly onto a surface. By using Eeonyx’s woven and nonwoven fabrics coated with conductive polymer thin films, the intention is to provide warming technology without the use of wires and circuitry, resulting in more uniform radiant heating without the risk of wire stress, damage or breakage, explains Richard Dixon, DKNTec’s principal technologist.

Dixon foresees multiple applications since the technology, already used for patient warming blankets, allows for wearable heaters. For example, heater fabric can be inserted between the layers of a coat or jacket (a demo garment has already been developed), or in gloves, footwear, headgear and outdoor clothing. In addition, the technology can be used to warm stadium seats, bedsheets, office chairs and a growing list of other products.

The second effort involves power transfer using magnetic waves. With its conductive polymer coating, Eeonyx’s fabrics are very magnetic-friendly, says Alex Rubin, CEO of Pabellon Inc., an advanced magnetics and research and development company in Morgan Hill, Calif., and the technical partner for this project.

Pabellon is working on surface plane magnetics and power transfer by taking radio frequency (RF) energy and turning this into a magnetic wave to transfer power. Rather than pushing power through a wire from point A to point B, it’s pushed along the fabric’s surface instead.

“When energy is inserted/absorbed into or by Eeonyx’s fabric, it converts to a combination of thermal and magnetic energy,” explains Rubin. “The magnetic energy is what we use for power transfer by exploiting the magnetic-friendly properties of the Eeonyx fabrics. This is a nontraditional way to use RF absorbers.”

 Among other possibilities, the fabric could be used to provide touch-free controls, such as motion-based activation. Or, it could be used in carpeting, for example in a hotel lobby, to identify traffic patterns, use of space or flow, providing real-time information to a data collecting or analytic entity. It could also be used to establish boundaries or stay-out zones, sounding an alarm if a person enters or gets too close.

 “We’re currently at the engineering stage,” says Rubin. “We’ll be ready for productization for specific- use cases in less than a year.” 


Sidebar: Intelligent threads

Reportedly, the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, thanks to so many items ending up in landfills. Advanced E-Textiles Ltd. (Adetexs) hopes to make the recycling of fabrics easier and more likely to happen.

Based in Nottingham, U.K., Adetexs designs and develops wearable electronics and smart textile fabrics for the medical, retail and automotive industries, among others, says Dr. Anura Rathnayake, founder and CEO. The company integrates micro-electronics into textile composite yarns with various functionalities, such as its RFID threads utilizing radio frequency identification (for example, the tags attached to clothing).

RFID tags track clothing up to the time of purchase. But once removed at point of purchase, the tracking stops, preventing the industry from using the technology to assist in recycling, says Rathnayake. However, Adetex’s RFID threads are invisibly incorporated into the clothing, lasting the entire life cycle of the piece, providing recyclers with information they need to make sorting more efficient—a key first step for recycling.

“When recyclers receive a garment with an integrated RFID thread, they can scan the garment and instantly access its material,” Rathnayake explains. “The RFID thread acts as a unique digital identifier connecting the garment to the Internet of Things, opening up a world of possibility for sustainability and transparency throughout the supply chain. This also opens up the opportunity to capture product data long after the sale, with disruptive implications on consumer behavior, brand data collection and predictive marketing.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.