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"Microphiber" -- The Discovery Files

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For the past decade, researchers in a MIT lab have been working to develop fibers with ever more sophisticated properties, creating fabrics that can interact with the environment. Their latest advancement are fabrics that can detect and create sound.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

'Clothe' Your Ears.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

We've all seen someone wearing something 'loud' -- but scientists at MIT are taking it literally. For the past ten years they've been working to develop fabrics that can interact with their environment, their latest advance -- fibers that can detect and produce sound.

Testing -- one, two. Fiber microphones use similar technology as far as materials and the scientific principles. Some mics work because parts of them are "piezoelectric" meaning they change shape when an electrical field is applied. The plastic used by the MIT team to make the 'sound fibers' is the same material found in microphones, with a few changes to keep the fibers piezoelectric even after heating and drawing them out.

To align the piezoelectric molecules in the same direction, the scientists zap the fibers with an electric field 20 times more powerful than one that generates a lightning bolt! (Sound effect: thunder clap sound) as complex as it sounds to make this interactive acoustic material, the team has created some functioning fibers.

What can you use them for? Imagine a wearable microphone. Shirts loaded with your favorite tunes or tiny filaments that monitor body functions such as blood flow. On a larger scale, fabric nets in the ocean could act as sonar.

I've come up with a few ideas myself -- I'm thinking about a flag that plays the star-spangled banner. Or pants that complain about your weight when you try to pull them shut. So far they haven't returned my calls.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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