Innovation in wearable tech and e-textiles could give us anti-viral protection

Henry Yi Li, Chair of Textile Science and Engineering at The University of Manchester, says ‘smart fabrics’ will be critical in helping to safeguard us from COVID-19.

Professor Yi Li says advanced materials and fabrics will help radically improve PPE while supporting the development of wearable devices and other smart medical clothing. Wearable technology, he says, will soon have a vital role to play in “detection, testing and diagnosis” during the pandemic.

Recorded September 2020.

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Lecture transcript

Hi, I’m Professor Yi Li from the Department of Materials at The University of Manchester. My research covers face masks, PPE, smart textiles and their applications. Now we are applying this technology to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. To date COVID-19 has caused [more than 40 million cases and over 1million deaths globally]. Research has shown that COVID-19 can damage many of the key organ systems in the human body, almost every part of the organ system - so, COVID-19 is identified as a systematic disease. Currently there is no effective treatment available and a vaccine will take many months to come - more importantly COVID protective immunity seems short lasting as reinfection cases have been reported in many countries. Herd immunity is questionable. The lockdown measures have caused substantial social and economic damage to many countries including the UK.

Prematurely lifting the restrictions can cause disasters and as we have now seen, a second wave of infection has hit many countries in Europe, including the UK. Now the question is, how can we get our life and our economy back to normal and live with the existence of the virus? To date, the key effective measures to control the pandemic include prevention, detection, contact tracing, quarantine, diagnosis and treatment. In fact, science and technological innovations can help to develop technical solutions. In terms of prevention, masks and PPE can be re-engineered to give better performance; we can redesign facemasks to give better protection by stopping all the transmission pathways, help reduce social distance to 0.5 metres and capture, kill and deactivate the virus. In a similar way, we can also re-engineer the PPE to make it more comfortable, give better protection and be reusable. By doing this we can effectively reduce the transmission rates and shift the trend of the pandemic.

In terms of detection, testing and diagnosis, e-textile wearables can be a very, very useful technology; for instance we can use e-textile antennas [which are] very small, fine and comfortable [and] breathable to wear - integrate them with fabric sensors which have been developed with graphene and 2D materials and integrate this together we can use your mobile phone to detect all different types of physiological signals, such as breathing rates, heart rates, body temperature and sweating rates, which if you use your mobile phone to scan and get at the data. So, for instance, using this app you can use your mobile phone to scan your temperature [speaker demonstrates prototype app on his smart phone] – this shows the temperature, it’s done automatically and sends to the cloud automatically. So, this is a very effective for diagnosis and testing devices.

In terms of contact tracing wearable technology also very, very useful. So, with the technology we can utilises this revolutionary technology to supplement the testing process in the hospitals. By using the wearable technology we can obtain data through your phone and send to the cloud which can feed back to you after computation and by using this specially designed app which can tap and scan by using specially designed - very simple and cheap - fabric sensor devices [speaker shows smart phone to screen]; you can see the data. With this system we can develop a cloud system which can provide data services for individuals, for hospitals, for the pandemic control authorities in the region, in the country, even global communities.

Therefore, we can build a quick response and protective defence system by using wearable technologies for contact tracing, and pandemic control. By putting together with advanced face masks and PPE then this system can be very effective and low cost to stop the pandemic COVID-19 and prevent future pandemics. We have the knowledge and the skills, capability, to achieve this goal so let’s work together.