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Nano technology’s been touted as the next big thing…..for quite a while now when you think about it.

But so far there’s been precious little product that found its way into everyday use; not counting cosmetic products with nano particles that no one’s too sure what effect they have.

However British-based Kiwi Simon McMaster may be onto a use of nano technology, which he describes as ‘bucket chemistry’ in developing a fabric that’s able to register a person’s vital signs.

Up till now, being able to measure factors such as heart rate or respiration via a piece of clothing required the incorporation of fine, usually comparatively brittle, wires into the fabric.

McMaster, who as a mature student obtained a B.Sc in chemistry from the UK’s Open University, and has just completed a Textile Technology masters degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, has figured out a way to measure electrical potential by tweaking the fabric itself.

“It’s about the way the fabric itself is knitted, along with the way we will carry out the nano particulate deposition,” he says. This is the foundation piece of IP that he and Wellington-based business director Karen Bender are obtaining patents for under their company ‘Footfalls and Heartbeats‘. The company is currently based at Grow Wellington’s CreativeHQ.

“The way we create the structure affects the signal from the electrically conducted fibre,” McMaster says.
He says many uses of nano technologies use a “top down approach”. From that point of view, others have attempted to put miniaturized electronics into a garment.

“Using chemistry, we’re using a bottom up methodology,” says McMaster. “We’ve taken a basic textile, mucked around with its structure and added nano at the molecular level. We’ve produced a robust, durable fabric that doesn’t feel or look any different to the original textile.”

The technology allows registering of vital body signs, and one use will be to allow monitoring of people who are unable to monitor themselves. Think the elderly and the very young.

Such information can, through a wireless device, be sent to a doctor or nurse.

Another market is athletes, whose coaches are keen on measuring and monitoring anything that can be. The nano impregnated fabric is also potentially capable of measuring bio-electrical factors such as muscle activity, and biomedical elements such as joint movement; with no wires involved.

While McMaster heads to complete a PhD at Leeds University and further develop the IP, linking into the design school’s strong base of nano researchers and knowledge, Bender is working with IRL and local Wellingtonian researchers to validate his initial research.

“We want them to prove its repeatability,” says McMaster. “Then hopefully we’ll have a prototype piece of clothing by the end of the year.”

Some electronics and power supply will be required to collect and “we need others to do that type of work for us,” he says.

Footfalls and Heartbeats’ business model will be to licence the technology, though “we may keep one of the vertical streams for ourselves.”

“We want to get the technology out and be innovative in that space. There are some markets we haven’t even thought of yet.”

McMaster, along with a very understanding partner, have up till now bootstrap funded the fabric’s development. The company is now at the point where it requires $150,000 – $200,000 of outside investment to develop the prototype.

He’s confident of obtaining the funding, as knitting’s a very simple technology, and the incorporation of nano particles doesn’t require much of a change.

“It’s a very culturally well-known form of clothing,” he says. “People know already know what knitted fabric feels like, and we’re not changing its feel.”

Perhaps it could be called a knitted nano technology. The company can see an end-market potential for its fabric that, without wires, can measure a body’s electrical potential.

There’s even the possibility of using the body’s movements itself to generate electricity, but as McMaster says, that’s a way down the track.