ECE assistant professor Xiaoting Jia holds a macroscopic preform, which will eventually be drawn into thin fibers for neural implants. Jia and ECE professors Anbo Wang and Luke Lester led the Virginia Tech effort to secure funding for the new Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
Virginia Tech is one of 32 universities selected to join the new, $317 million partnership announced by the Obama Administration on April 1, 2016, to encourage growth and creativity in the business of "smart" textiles and fabrics.
Called the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Alliance, the private-public joint venture won a nationwide competition for funding to create a new manufacturing institute with a mission to stimulate innovation in high-tech, U.S.-based fiber and textile manufacturing.
In partnership with the Department of Defense and led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Institute will bring together groups from industry and academia to integrate fibers and yarns with smart devices like LEDs, solar cells, microchips containing semiconductors, and other technologies that would lead to textiles and fabrics with the ability to see, hear, sense, communicate, react, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color, and more.
Jia's research focuses on flexible, multifunctional fibers that can interface with the brain, monitoring signals and delivering drugs or stimulation if needed. Wang has been involved in photonic sensor projects that help utilities burn fossil fuels as efficiently as possible, and Lester focuses on semiconductor lasers, photovoltaics, and transistors.
The Virginia Tech team will join professors from other universities in partnering with diverse groups who do not traditionally work together. For instance, audio equipment-maker Bose and computer chip maker Intel will be collaborating with textile manufacturers and users like New Balance, Warwick Mills and Buhler Yarns.
"By bringing these different groups together, the Institute is looking to spur creative thinking and bring about the next generation of fabric and textiles," said Lester.
The possibilities associated with these textiles are wide-ranging; from lightweight, flame resistant fabric to protect firefighters in the line of duty, to military-issued garb that could monitor a soldier's heart rate and body temperature, detecting distress and applying certain treatments.
The new Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which will be located in Cambridge, MA, will focus on developing and commercializing new technologies in the labs of member universities, including Virginia Tech. But it will also be cooperating with local workforce organizations to develop the infrastructure to operate and maintain these new systems of production.
The initiative will receive $75 million in federal funding and nearly $250 million in cost sharing from non-federal investments, all of which will be administered through a nonprofit.
The new institute is the sixth manufacturing hub to be awarded by the Obama administration through the Department of Defense.