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The Global Yarns Race Is On

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing

Innovative fibers to remake aerospace, defense, medical products

As the Fourth of July drew to a close, Nanocomp Technologies employees were glued to a live newsfeed from JPL/NASA. “It was fireworks in general around the company” shortly after midnight, when NASA signaled  that Juno had arrived safely at Jupiter, CEO Peter Antoinette said, noting that the spacecraft is surviving exposure to solar radiation and other hazards of space thanks in part to Miralon, a Nanocomp product providing electrostatic discharge protection.

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NASA is using a Nanocomp product to guard Juno against electrostatic discharge. Attitude control motor struts, the vertical poles seen at the top of the spacecraft, are among the components Nanocomp’s Miralon is protecting. Photo courtesy Nanocomp

A family of carbon nanotube (CNT)-based sheets, tapes, yarns and dispersions, Miralon is “a next-generation textile/fiber-like material that has all the hallmarks of an aramid, a carbon fiber, as well as levels of conductivity of many metals,” Antoinette said. “It is kind of a unique structure right now.”

Besides acting as a protective layer on the flight system’s attitude control motor struts, as well as safeguarding against electromagnetic interference on the main engine housing, Miralon reduced Juno’s weight by replacing the traditional aluminum foil used by NASA.

In aerospace, other opportunities for weight savings lay in data cables made with Miralon yarn and tape, as well as in the lightweight honeycomb Nanocomp makes to cut aluminum structures’ weight.

And Miralon, which is manufactured in Merrimack, NH, is being used in other applications—to augment or even replace Kevlar and carbon fiber.

All this from industrial yarn and fabric?

Indeed, the CNT-based composite material has earned a prominent place in what experts agree is shaping up to be a global smart yarns race.

At the first Smart Fabrics Summit, held in April in Washington, DC, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said the smart fabrics market was up 18% last year to about $1.9 billion worldwide—with the US claiming about half of that. That summit followed a Smart Fabrics Europe show, held in Spain in 2013 for physiosensor engineers, textile manufacturers and others.

To compete with Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea, the US Department of Defense (DOD) in April formed Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a consortium of 89 manufacturers, universities, and non-profits organized by MIT. AFFOA will also be the name of the new institute, which will have $317 million to spend for five years to pull the American textile industry into the digital age.

AFFOA is part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The institute plans to set up several Fabric Discovery Centers, starting in Cambridge, MA.

The institute is bound to face competition from ITV Denkendorf (http://www.itv-denkendorf.de/en/), Germany’s largest center of textile research, as well as populations in Asia that have “very high-quality and high-level scientists, technologists and engineers,” said Antoinette, whose company is a member of AFFOA.

“The AFFOA team is quite excited” about Miralon’s availability for experimentation in textile manufacturing, he said.

In addition to aerospace and defense, AFFOA is revolutionary for consumer products, transportation, manufacturing machinery and medical textiles and scanners.

‘A whole new take’ on fibers, fabrics

Graphene maker Vorbeck Materials Corp. (Jessup, MD) is also joining AFFOA.

Graphene is used to make yarn and sheets, and it has been the focus of much research in recent years. “We can incorporate the graphene both directly into the fibers to achieve different properties and then also in the sheets that, in essence, are applied between layers of fabric in different structures,” President John Lettow said.

AFFOA will eventually turn today’s thinking about fiber and fabrics on its head, he said.

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Vorbeck Materials President John Lettow

“We have been weaving fabrics and using fibers for thousands of years. But this is a whole new take on what those fibers and fabrics are going to be used for. Now, instead of just providing covering that is either robust or fashionable, it’s a real functional and integrated part of electronics and health systems, etc.”

The consortium is “rethinking what our clothes are made of, as well as the ropes and tethers and fiber-reinforced composites like carbon fiber and glass fiber,” Lettow said. “What is possible in terms of injecting technology into those areas?”

Vorbeck is working with aerospace partners—Lettow declined to name them—to design graphene-based conformal antenna systems that can be incorporated directly into flexible panels and applied to the outside of aircraft. “They follow the lines of the air frame and don’t disrupt aerodynamics,” he said. “They are easier to install and provide superior connectivity and communications to some of the existing antenna designs.”

Commercial airliners are often retrofitted with large boxes on top to communicate with satellites. “That is an expensive installation and it disrupts the aerodynamics of the air frame,” Lettow said. “The designers try to put structures around it to smooth the edges, but it still looks like a big box sticking out of the top of the airplane.”

In military aircraft, “you see it in spades,” he added. “You have a number of protrusions sticking out the skin of the aircraft. Those are primarily for sensor and antenna systems.”

The newfangled antenna will be ready for incorporation into airplanes within two years, Lettow said.

Vorbeck has also saddled up with apparel firm Bluewater Defense (Corozal, Puerto Rico)—another AFFOA member.

“We have been looking at communications as a major role that soft goods and fibers and fabrics can play in bringing new technology into the defense community,” Lettow said.

Today, infantry soldiers jumping out of planes and repelling from helicopters lug around backpack radios that, when assembled and ready for use, have long antennas sticking out of them.

“The first thing most radio operators will tell you is that that makes you an enormous target,” he said. “The second thing is that there are different antennas for different uses and different frequency ranges. So you frequently have to stop, take down one antenna, take out another one, deploy that, hook it into your radio and then proceed if you want to switch between certain frequency ranges.”

Two years from now, antennas Vorbeck is supplying to Bluewater may well be in play on the physical battlefield, Lettow predicted—woven into military backpacks.

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An engineer at Vorbeck Materials tests a Bluewater Defense/Vorbeck backpack and combat shirt with integrated antenna suites wired to a tablet for RF communication. The graphene antennas were printed onto this backpack. In the future, they will be woven in.

“This way, you have all of those antennas literally in your backpack, hooked directly into the radio simultaneously,” he said. “So that you can easily switch between different communication panels. And it obviously doesn’t stick up out of the backpack, since it is part of the structure of the backpack. That minimizes that target aspect of being a radio operator. Finally, if you are jumping out of an airplane or coming down the rope out of a helicopter, your antennas are already deployed; you don’t have to stop once you hit ground and do that.”

Soldiers carry 50–100 pounds (22.7–45.4 kg) of gear, which limits their mobility. The AFFOA members will lighten soldiers’ load by not only weaving antennas into backpacks but also incorporating energy harvesting and the sensing of hazardous chemicals directly into uniforms, he said. Energy harvesting can involve scavenging power from body motion or body heat, as well as use of flexible solar to collect energy from ambient light.

Graphene technology, developed under a NASA-sponsored research project at Princeton University, is now “going into everything wearable, not just antennas and communications but wearable sensors and devices,” Lettow said. “For example, measuring heart rate and temperature through your shirt, not just a band on your wrist, and therefore being able to provide that data much more accurately.”

Using graphing antennas for RFID will be important moving forward, “both from a defense logistics standpoint and from a commercial logistics standpoint,” Lettow said. That’s because it’s relatively easy to print and/or directly incorporate the RFID antennas and tags onto/into articles.

Tires are another use. “Graphene significantly reduces the rolling resistance of the tire and therefore can save significant amounts of energy—without having to change a drive train system or infrastructure for fueling.”

But aerospace will continue to be one of Vorbeck’s chief focus areas—because funding is plentiful.

More DOD cash for ‘multicapable systems’

The US military is about to intensify the hunt for “multifunctional systems” or “multicapable systems.”

A new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program the Obama administration plans to launch this year will promote combining new materials with “the latest in simulation and structural design to come up with whole new concepts and plans to redesign aerospace vehicles and other types of structures” with new capabilities, Lettow said, noting that “multifunctional materials” are of great interest.

Today, separate systems on commercial or military aircraft handle communications, radar warnings of incoming missiles, and stealth capabilities. But 20 or 30 years from now, “all of those systems are going to be integrated into the skin of the aircraft—such that you have one nearly invisible system that can perform a number of different functions.”

Fibers’ functions to grow rapidly

Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at MIT, wrote the proposal the Obama administration picked to get AFFOA and its Fabric Discovery Centers off the ground. He is now AFFOA’s CEO.

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AFFOA CEO Yoel Fink

“The first thing we are going to do at AFFOA is create a Moore’s Law for fibers,” Fink said. That observation “framed the entire semiconductor industry for decades,” and that industry proved the number of devices and functions could double in computer chips every couple of years.

The number of functions in a fiber will grow with similar speed, he said, adding that speed might someday be called the AFFOA law.

Bluewater Defense CEO Eric Spackey said the innovation might come sooner than every 18 months. “It may be 12 months or less,” he said.

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Bluewater Defense CEO Eric Spackey

Spackey’s firm, which makes about 16,000 combat trousers a day, started working with Fink and Lettow in the spring of 2015 on wearable graphene antennas and is now weaving them into backpacks and combat shirts.

“These are the first cases where [AFFOA members] are starting to work together to come up with a product that will be geared for industry,” said Spackey, who in recent weeks was named chief marketing officer for AFFOA. “It is going to enable folks looking to put sensors in clothing, whether for medical or defense uses, and move that information to the cloud. We will also be able to gather large amounts of information—big data—so we can start doing predictive analytics.”

Because apparel makers like Nike and New Balance are involved, DOD players will learn “rapid design cycles” and consumer-product-manufacturing techniques, Antoinette said. “If it is handled right, it will revolutionize how we build products for aerospace and defense. If your workout shirt doesn’t work, it’s no big deal. But it sure is a big deal if your body armor doesn’t work.”

Single-material status changing

Historically, fabrics have not done a lot for people—beyond providing warmth and shelter—because they have been made of a single material. They have been limited the same way forks and coffee cups have been.

“Fabrics are made of fibers, and fibers were always made of a single material,” Fink noted.

To take fabrics to a new level, MIT scientists combined the basic ingredients of technology—metal, insulators and semiconductors—and chose to not just layer them in but grow them. “We said, ‘Let’s draw them, because drawing gives you scale,” Fink said.

In addition to being employed as sensors, the coming fiber devices might find uses as modulators and even producers of light, sound, temperature and other environmental conditions. They could be used in telecommunications and imaging laser applications. They could be woven to make solar cell fabric.

The devices are likely to someday be available to be used as energy generation and storage capacitors and antennas. They could be able to hear and deliver sound. And they could be used to create energy-saving filters for vehicles, as well as uniforms that can regulate temperature and detect threats like chemical and radioactive elements.

“The important thing is to realize that in order to create function, you need to combine different materials together into a device,” Fink said. “And invariably these involve semiconductors or Piezoelectrics if you are dealing with acoustic waves. We are talking about combinations of materials that could transport charge with materials that could take electrical energy and convert it to some other form of energy, or vice versa.” (Piezoelectricity means power resulting from pressure.)

In the last year, manufacturers working on wearable medical devices have made big strides by using technology that prints circuitry onto fabric, said Jeffrey Rasmussen, market research manager at the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

“In the past, sensors and circuitry embedded into fabric were too big and too clunky,” he said. “Manufacturers have been able to make them miniaturized, more stretchable and comfortable.”

Devices now entering the market have sensors that measure sophisticated physiological parameters, such as 2-lead EKG and pulse oximetry, Dale Robinson, business development director at EWI, said. Circuitry and biosensors printed onto fabric and worn close to the heart and lungs for monitoring a person’s pulse and/or respiration rate tend to be more reliable than those worn on the wrist.

Smart fabrics maker Eeonyx has developed a patented formulation that allows it to apply conductive polymer coatings to textiles, fibers, and yarns—making them sensitive to touch, Rasmussen said.

Eeonyx in 2014 partnered with BeBop Sensors, which uses co-designed proprietary Eeonyx smart fabric to create flexible electronics/circuits that can be incorporated into a single piece of fabric. Using DuPont designed conductive inks, BeBop Sensors’ stretchable circuits can be printed onto fabric.

Members of AFFOA will be taking textiles even further—by baking electronics into fabrics.

How MIT literally turned up the heat

Fink and his lab partners at MIT over the last 18 years discovered how to thermally draw together multiple materials that have very different properties to create fiber devices.

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Fiber devices are created using a “preform” of materials like a large glass rod resembling an oversized model of the desired fiber.

Fiber drawing involves preparing a “preform” of materials like a large glass rod resembling an oversized model of the desired fiber. The preform is heated to the point where it reaches a taffy-like consistency. Then it is pulled into a thin fiber. The materials inside the preform are unchanged even though the preform’s dimensions are drastically reduced.

Because the drawing process only requires heating to 500°F (260°C), materials whose melting points are far higher are fair game. The preforms today contain selenium, sulfur, zinc and tin, arranged within a coating of polymer material. MIT combined these materials to form fibers containing zinc selenide, whose melting point is 2786°F (1530°C).

That new fiber is a simple-but-functional semiconductor device called a diode—a basic building block for electrical circuits. A diode can be seen as a one-way valve for electrical current.

“We were the first to combine a metal semiconductor and insulator—the basic ingredients of technology—into a drawn fiber,” Fink said. “The fibers have complex architectures at tens of nanometers scale.”

When describing the fiber-drawing, Fink often notes that energetically and thermodynamically, the process shouldn’t work. “But you use kinetics to draw at a rate that is faster than the rate of falling apart or reorganizing,” he said.

How will ‘fiber devices’ interface?

The resulting “fiber devices” will provide extraordinary flexibility.

It is reasonable to expect innovations to include “keyboards” in clothing covering abs and thighs, Antoinette said. And that brings new challenges: “Our skin is salty. It’s wet. It flexes. It has massive differential temperatures and pressure placed on it.”

“‘Connectorization’ is going to be a big problem. Even if you could turn everything into a Wi-Fi interface, something needs power,” he said. “Think about how well a shirt works when we move back and forth. Think about shoes. These are not benign environments. So what we make is going to have to be able to work that way and yet interface meaningfully.”

Ralph Lauren is there to help.

At the Commerce Department-sponsored Smart Fabrics Summit, the firm showed a prototype of an athletic workout shirt with built-in biometric monitoring.

“No one saw that one coming,” Antoinette said. “So, now you have a brand house looking at technology in a different manner. That was a paradigm shift for us.”

High-level brand names in the apparel industry like Ralph Lauren and Under Armor are now working alongside aerospace firms like Boeing, DuPont, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman on the interaction “between our clothing and ourselves,” he said. “We’re going to see some really interesting things happening in the next 10 years.”

Investors outside US show interest

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Nanocomp Technologies CEO Peter Antoinette two years ago hosted (from left) U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, retired US Army Col. Jake Simmons and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan as he announced his firm was expanding. Now a member of the nascent consortium Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, Nanocomp plans to expand again—to show it can do manufacturing at industrial scales.

The NNMI and AFFOA exist to help US-based, budding manufacturing tech firms survive what some call the economic “valley of death.” That’s when a proven idea can be further developed and scaled for a manufacturing environment but lacks the funding to do so–largely because investors view manufacturing technology as too high-risk. Any effort to dominate advanced fibers and textiles manufacturing must address it.

Nanocomp has arrived at just that place.

Antoinette, who employs 72 people working in 60,000 ft2 of a 100,000 ft2(9290 m2) building in New Hampshire, does not sense competition in CNT-based spun yarns. But he does see other firms, such as General Nano in Ohio and Tortech Nano Fibers in Ma’alot Tarshiha, Israel, trying to make CNT-based sheets, he said. So it’s time to raise money to expand Nanocomp’s facility and show it can do manufacturing at industrial scales.

And on the VC front, at least, even its Juno credentials fall on deaf ears in the US.

VC in the US “has fled anything that’s involved with manufacturing that’s capital intensive,” Antoinette said. “The sweet siren song of social media apps and the like, where massive valuations are happening with much less risk capital, has really changed the landscape. Now, US venture capital is very difficult to attract if you are in the materials area.

“Overseas capital is much more interested,” he added, “because they perceive there’s a gap to be filled.”

Karen Queen contributed to this report.

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