Smart fabric mimics bone tissue periosteum that stiffens upon impact

Periosteum is a membrane that covers the outer surface of most bones. Consisting of a complex combination of collagen, elastin and other structural proteins, it is an incredibly resilient material that gives bones extra strength under high impacts. Researchers from University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, managed to mimic these properties in a smart fabric that could be used in anything from medicine to safety clothing for sports.

In order to the functional capacity of the periosteum, the team used an incredibly high fidelity imaging system to investigate and map its architecture. In periosteum, elastin gives it its stretchy properties and collagen imparts toughness.

However, because the fibres of elastin and collagen are too small for a loom in order to make fabric, the researchers replaced them with other materials. Elastic material mimics elastin, while they used silk to mimic collagen.

Not only mimicked the researchers the materials of which periosteum is made, they also tried to mimic the tissue with the weave pattern. Computer modeling allowed the researchers to scale up nature’s architectural patterns to weave periosteum-inspired, multidimensional fabrics using a state-of-the-art computer-controlled jacquard loom.

In a first test of the scaled-up tissue weaving concept, a series of textile swatch prototypes were woven, using specific combinations of ‘collagen’ and ‘elastin’ in a twill pattern designed to mirror periosteum’s weave. Mechanical testing of the swatches showed they exhibited similar properties found in periosteum’s natural collagen and elastin weave.

The result of the research is a series of textile swatch prototypes that mimic periosteum’s smart stress-strain properties. The researchers also demonstrated the feasibility of using this technique to test other fibres to produce a whole range of new textiles.

Potential future applications range from protective suits that stiffen under high impact for, for instance, skiers, racing-car drivers and astronauts, through to ‘intelligent’ compression bandages.