Biofiber

Looking to add something new and out of the ordinary to your wardrobe? While only time will tell, a new colorful type of fabric may be just around the corner.

According to a study published in the journal Advanced Materials, scientists at Harvard University and the University of Exeter, UK, have invented a new multilayered fiber that could lead to smart fabrics that visibly react to heat or pressure.

This new fiber is inspired by the bright iridescent blue color of the South American tropical plant’s fruit, the Margaritaria nobilis, commonly referred to as the “bastard hogberry.” Like many other organisms throughout evolution, the bright color of this fruit attracts birds and other animals to eat the fruit and then disperse the seeds over a wide geographic area.

But scientists have taken the technological structure of the bastard hogberry a step further, said lead study author Mathias Kolle, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. While the plant itself can’t change color, researchers combined the fruit’s structure with an elastic material, creating an artificial version that passes through a rainbow of colors when stretched.

“By looking carefully at biological organisms and nature in general, we can learn a lot about how to create materials with superior properties beyond just visible appearance,” Kolle said. "In the emerging research field of bio-inspired materials we have seen lots of exciting progress in the last decade and I am sure many of those newly developed materials will change dramatically how we do things in the future."

The Fashionable Fabric of the Future?

While the team’s research is still a work in progress, Kolle said these fibers could be weaved into attractive fabrics with many possibilities for use in the fashion world.

“The actual variation in color upon deformation of the fiber itself would make them a nice platform for textiles with vivid colors that change all the time during the movement of the person who wears them,” Kolle said.

There’s no question that the development of such a unique material will attract the eyes of fashion designers around the world, including San-Francisco based designer Ilan Rueben of Ilanio. Laregely inspired by nature and biology, his creations are a mixture of both modern art and fashion.

“In terms of materials, I tend to focus on synthetics—plastics, rubbers, and composites—and often, garish neon colors,” Reuben said, “…a fabric like this would be right up my alley.”

But when it comes to standard fashion, Reuben speculates that the fabric might become more of a specialty fabric, finding its way into athletic wear, dancewear, and other niche applications.

“As for my own uses, my head is exploding with ideas,” he said.

A similar material, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK has already been used by a designer in London in her Rainbow Winters line to create colorful textiles that interact and change in response to sound, sunlight, water, and tension. But Kolle said he believes these new fibers might eventually push the boundaries in the color-tuning range even further.  

“Hopefully our fibers will be implemented into general fashion one day but there are a number of details that need optimization before that,” he said.

More Than Just a Fashion Accessory

Even if such a fabric doesn’t manage to hold up in the fashion industry, Kolle said several other potential uses exist fort it as well.

“It would also be interesting to test if the fibers could play a role in opto-mechanical sensors, for example, where heavy machinery is used to perform precision movements,” he said.  

The team is also investigating how light behaves inside the fibers and its possible application in photonic circuitry, which is similar to electronic circuits, but much faster and more powerful in data handling. These fibers might even be able to sense ambient humidity if combined with a material component that shows swelling in water vapor, but more research is needed, said Kolle.

“While we anticipate that this novel material system could potentially be employed in smart color-tunable fabrics there will be a certain amount of optimization necessary in order to get there,” he said.  “We can certainly envision a number of interesting applications but all of those still remain to be realized.”

More on Healthline