When most of us think of wearable Health Tech, we likely think of smart watches, fitness trackers, or even socks, headbands, and sneakers that can monitor and measure health and fitness metrics. But these devices often require a separate controller to extract and interpret information. For wearable tech to be truly integrated into our daily lives and become widely adopted, it needs to be less cumbersome, and more… well… wearable. For example, by becoming an organic part of the clothing we wear.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. have found a way to incorporate washable electronic circuits directly into fabric. The circuits are made with inexpensive and environmentally friendly inks and printed using conventional inkjet printing techniques. The researchers demonstrated how a two-dimensional form of carbon called graphene can be printed directly onto fabric and produce integrated electronic circuits. Unlike wearable electronics that must be affixed to plastic, rubber, or textiles, which are not breathable and often difficult to wear, the graphene circuits are nontoxic and comfortable to wear. They can also withstand 20 cycles in a washing machine. According to Dr. Felice Torrisi of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, “Other inks for printed electronics normally require toxic solvents and are not suitable to be worn, whereas our inks are cheap, safe, and environmentally-friendly, and they can be combined to create electronic circuits by simply printing different two-dimensional materials on the fabric.” The researchers noted that the printed components are flexible, washable, and require low power, attributes that they view as “essential requirements for applications in wearable electronics.”

If typical fabrics for everyday wear can incorporate washable electronic circuits, what might the possibilities be? Commercial applications could go beyond the fitness market to include wearable energy harvesting and storage, personal health and well-being technology, and even wearable computing, say the Cambridge researchers.  Adoption of the technology for medical applications seems certain, and one can even imagine a future in which standard hospital gowns are transformed into garments that can monitor and keep patients healthy.