Researchers at Purdue University in the US have developed an electroluminescent (EL) thread, which glows when an electrical current is passed through it, that is compatible with embroidery machines. 

A paper published in Science Advances in January reported how the team had created multicolour EL threads that were compatible with non-industrial, universal embroidery machines, could be used on various fabrics, and were durable against folding, stretching and repetitive machine washes. Stitching speeds in excess of 350spm were achieved. Previously, the integrity of EL threads were compromised by machine embroidery.

Chi Hwan Lee, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Purdue University, and one of the authors of the paper, told Images: “The EL threads could offer transformative applications across multiple sectors due to their unique properties of flexibility, durability, and luminosity. 

“In the fashion and apparel industry, they enable the creation of dynamic, customisable clothing and accessories, adding a new dimension to personal style. Safety and emergency services can significantly benefit from enhanced visibility and functionality in gear, making them crucial for night workers and emergency responders. 

The healthcare sector may see these threads used in smart garments for patient monitoring, while in home décor, they promise interactive and customisable design elements. Advertising and branding can leverage these threads for eye-catching, illuminated logos and promotions. The entertainment and event management industries can utilise them for visually stunning performances and venue decorations. 

“Additionally, their potential use in automotive interiors and military gear highlights their versatility, appealing to a wide range of industries seeking innovative, functional, and aesthetically pleasing textile solutions.”

The next steps

The next phase in the research will see the team focusing on integrating the EL threads with wearable sensors for real-time visualisation, which he says will be particularly beneficial in healthcare and fitness for monitoring vital statistics. Work also needs to be done to develop compact, sustainable power sources, as well as expanding the range of colours and lighting effects.

“Testing the electroluminescent (EL) threads with more industrial-style embroidery machines, such as Happy, Barudan, or Tajima, is indeed a logical next step in our research and development process,” he added. “This is crucial for assessing their scalability and suitability for mass production. We are seeking collaboration for this endeavour.”

He hopes the EL threads will be commercially available in the near future, although he emphasises this is dependent on several key factors, the first of which is ensuring they can be produced without prohibitive costs.

“Secondly, regulatory approvals and compliance with standards will play a critical role, especially in industries like healthcare and safety. Finally, market readiness and consumer acceptance are essential for successful commercialisation. Partnerships with industry players and continued innovation are likely to drive these threads towards market readiness. However, the exact timeline remains uncertain and is contingent upon these multiple factors aligning effectively. 

“We are also actively seeking partners or venture capitalists to help commercialise this technology in the market.”