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Smart fiber can act as a camera

Image: Smart fiber
To create their smart fiber, MIT scientists start with a large object that is an exact scale model and then take it into a furnace, heat it, elongate it, and draw out miles of fibers, each one a tiny replica of the original and much larger model. Yoel Fink/MIT
/ Source: Discovery Channel

By implanting light-sensitive, semiconducting materials into a single synthetic fiber, and then weaving that fiber into nearly one square foot of fabric, MIT scientists have created a flexible camera that has taken a picture of a smiley face.

A fabric camera is just the start. The same technique that put a camera into a fiber can also be used to implant other devices, even full computer systems, into fabrics.

"What would happen if a single strand of fiber became as advanced as a laptop computer?" said Yoel Fink, a scientist at MIT and co-author of a paper that appeared recently in the journal NanoLettters. "The essence of this paper is that this may now be possible."

Creating an intelligent fiber is easier than it sounds. In fact, it's similar to making hard candy.

"We start with a large object that is an exact scale model," said Fink, "and then take it into a furnace, [heat it], elongate it, and draw out kilometers of fibers," each one a tiny replica of the original and much larger model.

Each fiber is two to three times the width of a human hair, the easier for the researchers to handle them, although any sized fiber can be created. The smaller the fiber the more of them can be packed into an area, and the greater the resolution of the image.

Two nano-scale rings, 100 billionth of a meter long, of a light sensitive semiconducting material are encased in the fiber. When light hits those rings, it creates an electrical current that travels through the fiber and into a computer, which uses a special algorithm to decode the signals and create an image, in this case, a smiley face.

If a person donned an entire shirt made from these smart materials and walked into a room, the shirt could gather all the light from the objects inside the room to create a detailed, 3-D color image of everything in that room.

Until the technology matures, Fink and his colleagues are working with the U.S. Army to create a light-based communication system.

The U.S. Army, which helped fund the research, has already developed one application for the fabric.

Draping nearly one square foot of the fabric over a helmet, the Army wants to create a laser-based communication system that would allow soldiers to communicate silently over long distances by shining laser beams onto each other's uniforms.

This is the first time a fabric-based camera has been created. The MIT scientists are certainly happy about this development, but Fink and his team have much bigger goals, one of which is creating a single fiber that has all the functionality and power of today's laptop computers.

Jumping from a camera to an entire computer might sound far-fetched, but the same materials used in the creation of the flexible camera are also commonly found in laptop computers.

"This is a pioneering effort by the MIT scientists," said Rod Ruoff, a material scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.

"This result embodies an important goal for the integration of nanostructures into macro scale device. If they can implant this into fiber optics materials, it occurs to me that they could implant this into glass and other materials as well."