Light Emitting Fibers

The future of “wearable computing” is:  getting rid of the “computer”, and moving the programming into skin, sensors, ink, projection, and fabrics.

One of the features we want is programmable textiles, that can change texture, thickness, and, of course, color. Textiles are rather challenging targets, because they are exposed to rough handling, real world environments, and must stand up to laundering. I would add that textiles are a very intimate technology, and very familiar. Half-baked technologies that might be tolerated on an office desk will be less accepted in a shirt or underwear. We both know and care about the quality of the textiles we use.

Two articles this week discuss a promising new technology for creating light emitting fibers suitable for use in textiles. Enrique Orti and Henk J. Bolink point out, textiles are not a congenial substrate for electronics. But if we can create light emitting threads, they can be woven or knitted into fabrics, opening “all kinds of opportunities”.

This week a team (Zhitao Zhang, Qibing Pei, and others) at Fudan University, Shanghai University, and UCLA report promising results with polymer light-emitting electrochemical cells (PLECs). The key advance is development of ways to fabricate the LEC in a fiber that can be incorporated into textiles.

From Zhitao et al [2].

If I understand the (rather technical) article correctly, these fibers have nice properties: they glow in all directions, they are rugged and sufficiently waterproof to be feasible. Cool!

I gather that it is early days on this technology. The color range of this first batch is limited, and the life time is pretty short. (Sigh. Now I have to worry about my shirt “burning out”, not to mention running out of power.) But these things will be worked out.

What is it for? Here’s one idea: combine PLECs with reactive sensor-based systems, and we have clothing that is actively reveals or (more likely) hides the wearer, his or her emotions, and thoughts. Phew!

Geopolitical note: Have a glance at the institutions involved. The US is mired in political insanity and mindless enthusiasm for shallow “hackathon” level technology, while China blows past in most technical fields, based on deep, patient, creative work.


  1. Enrique Orti and Henk J. Bolink, Organic emitters: Light-emitting fabrics. Nat Photon, advance online publication 03/23/online 2015.
  2. Zhitao Zhang, Kunping Guo, Yiming Li, Xueyi Li, Guozhen Guan, Houpu Li, Yongfeng Luo, Fangyuan Zhao, Qi Zhang, Bin Wei, Qibing Pei, and Huisheng Peng, A colour-tunable, weavable fibre-shaped polymer light-emitting electrochemical cell. Nat Photon, advance online publication 03/23/online 2015.


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