University of Minnesota part of $317 million national initiative to develop ‘smart’ fabrics

April 1, 2016

The University of Minnesota is part of a $317 million public-private partnership to develop the next generation of “smart” fabrics and fibers that incorporate technology in new ways to improve (and even save) lives. The partnership was announced today by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

The partnership, named Advanced Functional Fibers of America (AFFOA), will be led by MIT and includes dozens of academic and industry partners. The goal is to accelerate innovation in high-tech, U.S.-based manufacturing of fibers and textiles with the aim of developing fibers that have the functionality of semiconductor devices or fabrics that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, or monitor health.

A wide range of industries are expected to benefit from these revolutionary fibers and textiles, including apparel, consumer products, automotive, medical devices, and consumer electronics.

“The AFFOA initiative provides an exciting opportunity to enhance the functionality of the fabrics that all of us interact with every day,” said University of Minnesota mechanical engineering assistant professor Julianna Abel. “An example of ‘smart’ fabrics includes multi-material fabrics for medical and rehabilitative purposes that can monitor health and provide sensory feedback to the wearer.”

Some uses in the military could also save lives. “Military uniforms made with high tech materials could make them invisible to night vision so they could be used in rescue missions without detection,” said David Pui, a University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor.

“Another example is ‘smart’ fabrics that would use the motion of the person wearing the fabric to charge electronics,” Pui said.

Pui and Abel are the lead researchers for this initiative at the University of Minnesota. They will coordinate other researchers across the University of Minnesota and in private industry.

The University of Minnesota was chosen as a partner in the AFFOA initiative in part because of its successful Center for Filtration Research led by Pui. The center has 18 industry partners that also have potential to be contributing partners in the AFFOA initiative.

Abel has expertise in the design of smart materials and structures with an emphasis on textile-based architectures for the creation of novel actuators, sensors, and energy harvesters. Her research establishes frameworks to design and synthesize smart material technologies to enable new aerospace structures, medical devices, and consumer products. Abel was hired in fall 2014 as part of the state-funded MnDRIVE—Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and Innovation Economy—initiative. One of the focus areas of MnDRIVE is robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing.

“We are pleased that the University of Minnesota is part of this partnership to create a whole new industry, based on breakthroughs in fiber materials and manufacturing,” Pui said.

The new initiative will receive $75 million in federal funding out of a total of $317 million through cost sharing among the Department of Defense, industrial partners, venture capitalists, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The funding will cover a five-year period and will be administered through a new, independent, nonprofit organization. Projects at the University of Minnesota will receive matching funds from the College of Science and Engineering, Office for the Vice President of Research, Center for Filtration Research, and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The AFFOA partnership includes 31 universities, 16 industry members, 72 manufacturing entities, and 26 startup incubators across 28 states. Among the industry partners are brands such as Dupont, Warwick Mills, NextFlex, Steelcase, and Corning.

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