Imagine wearing a shirt that can act as a microphone for the world around you, or monitor your health by listening to your heart rate and blood flow. Or a piece of mesh that can float on in the ocean for sonar imaging or monitoring marine activities. Researchers from MIT have developed the next generation of fabric that offers practically limitless possibilities for taking in acoustic data from the surrounding environment. Woven fibers that can "hear" and "sing" could change the way we use fabrics to interact with our environment.

MIT reports that Yoel Fink, an associate professor of materials science and principal investigator at MIT's Research Lab of Electronics, and his collaborators have hit a new milestone on making fibers more functional than they already are. The fibers they've created can both detect and produce sound. It means that a piece of woven cloth can become the equivalent of millions of acoustic sensors bundled together.

Using a conducting plastic that contains graphite, the researchers were able to produce a fiber microphone that maintains a higher viscosity than conventional piezoelectric microphone, enabling the fibers to be made at regular thicknesses. Once the fibers are made, the researchers align the piezoelectric molecules in the same direction by applying a powerful electric field. Once finished, "You can actually hear them, these fibers," says Chocat, a graduate student in the materials science department.

"If you connected them to a power supply and applied a sinusoidal current [an alternating current whose period is very regular] then it would vibrate. And if you make it vibrate at audible frequencies and put it close to your ear, you could actually hear different notes or sounds coming out of it."

The researchers note that the technology is scaleable for manufacturing, though that won't be important until there are definite uses created for the material.

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