A University of Central Florida scientist is playing a critical role in shaping a $317 million U.S. Department of Defense program that could expand the function of clothing to include monitoring our health, sensing the environment, and harvesting energy.

The new smart clothing initiative is expected to be announced today by Defense Secretary Ash Carter at a news conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ayman Abouraddy, an associate professor at CREOL, The College of Optics & Photonics, has made the leap from working with optical fibers that carry data across countries and oceans to committing – with his former colleagues at MIT – to design the next-generation of what can most basically be described as new ‘threads.’

Think shirts that can monitor blood pressure, jackets that can store and convert thermal energy, window shades and tents that harvest solar energy, dresses that change color at the push of a button, and self-drying shoes. New threads woven into textiles could conceivably conduct electricity, sense the temperature and body functions, communicate with the internet, and detect threats and report injuries to soldiers on the battlefield. The initiative stresses both military and commercial applications.

Most of us already carry many gadgets that perform some of these tasks. The new Revolutionary Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Innovation Institute (RFT-MII) aims at embodying these functionalities seamlessly into the very fabrics we wear – in the individual threads – which will lead to a new wearable ‘Internet of Things.’

And much of the research will be conducted in Osceola County at the International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research, a facility made possible through investment by UCF and a broad base of community partners.

“This institute is going to push research – here and at MIT – as we incorporate advanced technologies such as electronics and optoelectronics all packaged into a fiber, and transition these fibers into the apparel and non-apparel textile industries,” Abouraddy said.  UCF’s participation in the program validates the investments in the Osceola County facility, and recognizes the strength of the university’s burgeoning CREOL, The College of Optics & Photonics.

This Institute is the eighth among the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation initiative, funded through the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Energy (DoE), in an effort initiated by President Barack Obama to transform manufacturing in the U.S.

“It is an honor to be working in partnership with MIT on a major project of importance to the DOD and the economy of our region and nation,” said MJ Soileau, vice president for Research & Commercialization at UCF.

“Dr. Abouraddy is a world leader in this next-generation field and his experience, combined with the research team at CREOL and development of the International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research in Osceola County, position Florida as a competitor in these high-stakes initiatives,” Soileau said.

The revolutionary threads Abouraddy and the team at the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) will make stand to disrupt one of the world’s oldest industries and keep nearly 50,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next ten years.

The seemingly magic technology is made possible by the decades of cumulative experience the research team has in understanding the inner workings of optical fibers and designing ever more efficient ways to transmit massive amounts of data.

The process of creating a fiber capable of functioning as a fully integrated and networked system will essentially meld together a diversity of materials not usually associated with optical fibers, such as metals and semiconductor materials, along with the more traditional glasses and plastics. These ‘multimaterial’ fibers can realize the functions provided in electronic devices in a low-cost package slightly thicker than a strand of hair.

UCF has committed $29 million to the project over five years, including the hiring of five faculty to support the AFFOA and the use of facilities and equipment. The $317 million total award includes $75 million in federal funding.   While the initiative will be headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., near MIT, much of the sensor-based research will take place at ICAMR in Osceola County.

“This is one of many firsts we anticipate celebrating as our state-of-the-art facility rises from the ground and acquires the tools that enable advanced manufacturing to occur,” said Chester Kennedy, ICAMR CEO.

In addition to MIT and UCF, the AFFOA includes 16 industry members, 29 universities and 26 startup incubators. UCF is the only university in Florida to participate.

The center will create jobs by enabling rapid development of prototypes for technical fibers and materials and utilize a system of business incubators, including the UCF Business Incubation Program, to help new companies start and develop new products.

Partnerships with universities and colleges, including UCF and Valencia College, will assist in developing a workforce for positions in this new era of seamlessly integrated electronics and textiles.