Low-cost sensors embedded in T-shirts and face masks to monitor breathing and heart rate


Imperial researchers have included new, low-cost sensors that monitor breathing, heart rate, and ammonia in T-shirts and face masks.

Potential applications range from monitoring exercise, sleep and stress to diagnosing and monitoring disease through breathing and vital signs.

Woven from a new, imperial-developed cotton-based conductive thread called PECOTEX, the sensors cost very little to manufacture. Producing just $0.15 a meter of thread to seamlessly integrate more than ten sensors into garments, PECOTEX is compatible with industry standard computerized embroidery machines.

The flexible medium of clothing means that our sensors have a wide range of applications. It is also relatively easy to produce which means we can expand manufacturing and usher in a new generation of wearable. “

Fahd Al-Shabouna – Senior Author – Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Bioengineering at Imperial

The research team embroidered the sensors into a face mask to monitor breathing, a shirt to monitor heart activity, and textiles to monitor gases such as ammonia, a breathing component that can be used to track liver and kidney function. Ammonia sensors were developed to test whether gas sensors could also be made using embroidery.

Fahd added, “We demonstrated applications in monitoring heart and breathing activity, and gas sensing. Potential future applications include diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of disease, monitoring of the body during exercise, sleep, stress, use of batteries, heaters, and anti-static clothing.”

The research was published today in Articles Today.

seamless sensors

Wearable sensors, such as those in smart watches, allow us to continuously monitor our health and wellness. However, to date, there has been a lack of suitable conductive leads, which explains why wearable sensors seamlessly in clothing have yet to be widely available.

Enter PECOTEX. Developed and twisted into sensors by Imperial researchers, the material is machine washable, less brittle and more electrically conductive than commercially available silver-based conductive filaments, meaning more layers can be added to create complex types of sensors.

Lead author Dr. Virat Gooder, also from the Department of Bioengineering, said: “PECOTEX is high-performance, robust and adaptable to different needs. It is easily scalable, which means we can mass-produce at low cost using both domestic and industrial computerized embroidery machines.

“Our research opens up exciting possibilities for sensors that can be worn in everyday clothing. By monitoring breathing, heart rate and gases, they can already be seamlessly integrated, and may be able to help diagnose and monitor disease therapies in the future.”

Next, researchers will explore new application areas such as energy storage, energy harvesting, and biochemical sensing, as well as finding partners for commercialization.

This study was funded by the Department of Education, Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPSRC, part of UKRI), Cytiva, the Imperial Department of Bioengineering, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Army.


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