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Smart Textiles improve the world

We follow the Viskan river into the old textile factory that today is home to the Textile Fashion Center – a place for world-leading research, education and innovation. We spend an afternoon here with research leader Nils-Krister Persson, an enthusiastic generalist who has moved from physics and molecular biology to smart textiles, with the aim of changing and improving society.

The lunchtime rush. People are eating, talking and socialising. There is a pleasant hum. Inside the weaving lab, the looms are buzzing. Some visitors gather at reception, ready for a tour of the Textile Museum. The old factory floors have become a centre for modern textile research and a place where research, education and business meet. The river Viskan runs through the building, a reminder of a constant flow and continual change. At the centre of this hive of activity works Docent Nils-Krister Persson – one of the research leaders within Smart Textiles at the University of Borås. Today he is dressed all in black.
“What's exciting about textiles is that we always interact with them. As humans, we have contact with textiles 99.9 per cent of the time. The only time we don’t is when we are in the shower – until we grab the towel. This is the case for everyone, regardless of culture. Paper was our introduction to sharing knowledge and reading, whereas textiles express emotions. Textiles make it possible to show which group you want to belong to, your personality, gender identity, style and sexuality. Since textiles are so close to us, we have a way in to changing society.

Nils-Krister Persson 
Is: Docent, senior lecturer and research leader within Smart Textiles at the University of Borås. 
Background: Undergraduate studies in physics and mathematics, holds a doctoral degree in Materials science, organic electronics and molecular life science. 
Lives: With his family in Linköping. 
Last book read: Aside from an abundance of journal articles, hunting accounts from Ydre. 
Last film seen: Susan Bier’s “In a Better World”, disturbingly good. 
Hobbies: The outdoors, survival and nature as well as writing short stories.

12:00 Lunchtime meeting at Textile Fashion Center

Nils-Krister Persson’s days vary. When we meet, he has just arrived home from a climate conference in Marrakesh, where he spoke about the importance of textiles for sustainability. Today he has a lunch meeting with the University of Borås’ acting Pro Vice-Chancellor Jenny Johannisson who wants to find out about his travels and what his new insights can bring to day-to-day activities.
“There's a nice restaurant here that we jokingly refer to as our ‘staff canteen’, but it isn't really. Still, it is a good example of the meeting place that Borås has become. Many people travel down from Stockholm to Borås, which just shows that the University of Borås is an important player,” says Nils-Krister Persson, as he then orders a vegetarian risotto with saffron aioli.

During lunch, they discuss everyday challenges, both large and small, as well as how the current government proposition for research will affect them.
“I need to meet with Nils-Krister to get a fair picture of the work in action. I also need to know how research works in practice so I can then convey it to others,” explains Jenny Johannisson.
“This is the first time we’re having lunch together, but we talk to each other when we meet – it isn't a big university, we all say hello to each other in the corridors,” says Nils-Krister.

 

I started at a different department at the university, but I soon became curious about smart textiles.

 

Smart Textiles is an innovative environment that comprises a close collaboration between the University of Borås, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden (previously SP), Swerea IVF and the Borås Incubator. As research leader, Nils-Krister Persson naturally investigates the environment, his research began far away from where he is now. At undergraduate level, he studied physics and mathematics, and he holds a doctoral degree in Materials science, organic electronics and molecular life science.

“I have an unusual background in this context. I came to the University of Borås almost ten years ago to start a postdoc. I started at a different department at the university, but I soon became curious about smart textiles.

Sweden is way ahead in smart textiles, which have become a flagship of the University of Borås. Essentially, smart textiles concerns textiles as a social factor and a way to make the world a little better with help from textiles. For a long time, the University of Borås has been working with both the artistic and the technical aspects of the field. For example, it may apply to clothing used for healthcare treatment; textiles that can measure the heart rate, fibres that can conduct electricity or a project close to Nils-Krister’s heart – research examining the possibility to purify water using textiles.
“It all started with me having worked with solar energy for a long time, extracting electric current from sunlight. This led me to an interest in photocatalysis, which involves creating chemical reactions with light, or using light to develop different positive effects. I was interested in the chemical reactions that can break down the cell membranes of microorganisms. We started off with many experiments in a laboratory environment and found that we could effectively kill microorganisms. We have progressed from this to experiments with “real” contaminated water from lakes and rivers, and it is working really well. We have also looked at more functions, such as extracting environmental toxins from the water.

It is a type of water purification system, not a filter, which therefore avoids having to press the water through a membrane. Maybe in the future it can all be made into a type of ‘artificial wetland’ that covers large areas, is adapted to the environment and can purify for long periods. It could purify leachate from refuse sites, as well as surface water from urban areas.
“Water purification is one of the most important global issues, and if used correctly, this can be really interesting. For example, imagine large areas of fabric purifying large volumes of water, perhaps at the bottom of a lake in a developing country. The challenge now is to find an industrial way to capture the active material in the fabric. This is a constantly progressing project, a living project that I feel particularly passionate about. Perhaps it is not what you first think about when you think of textiles – the majority tend to associate textiles with clothes.

13:00 Through the weaving lab

We go through the weaving lab that serves as a hub in the old factory building, where industry and traditional crafts now meet. Hi-tech production materials stand alongside ordinary looms. Here, everything from locally produced jeans to sound absorbing carpets are made.
“You can weave all sorts of material, for example we’ve woven antennae made of metal here”. Modern technology and mathematics work closely with the textile industry. One example is in programming, which in many ways originated here. I have worked with a wide range of disciplines, both in chemistry and mechanics; I am a generalist and in my role as a researcher I see this as something positive.

Textile Fashion Center
Textile Fashion Center is a meeting place for creative organisations within fashion, textiles and design in Borås. The premises were previously a textile factory, and today it is a modern hub and creative centre for science, culture, innovation and business, mainly within textiles but also in other areas. Textile Fashion Center is home to several independent organisations brought together in one textile cluster. 

It is a collaboration between businesses, research institutions, education, and organisations that work with innovation and business development. Three parties form the basis of the organisation: Borås Stad, the University of Borås and the businesses in Sjuhärad.

Before we continue, Nils-Krister Persson says hello to some colleagues and students.
“We are very lucky here at the Swedish School of Textiles, with so many courses and specialisations in one place. Machines and engineers are incredibly important, and so is being able to work with innovations and obtain a result that can be grasped, that can be understood. The students are not here by chance; they are interested in the subject and are highly ambitious. I usually ask them to calm down slightly.

12:30 Supervision with Mohammad Hatamvand

After lunch, Nils-Krister Persson and his colleague Tariq Bashir have booked a supervision with doctoral student Mohammad Hatamvand, whose research investigates creating textiles that can transform light into electricity. 
“He is going to manufacture fibres that can generate electricity and that can serve as an alternative to batteries,” explains Nils-Krister Persson.

The discussion centres on hypotheses about how different materials react to different solutions. If you apply different layers of materials on top of each other, the one at the bottom may not dissolve. Nils-Krister Persson listens, and provides his reflections, advice and guidance, as well as assigning tasks prior to the next meeting. 
“My role does not mean giving complete solutions, it is an attempt to guide [the student] forward. I hop between many tasks, and here this is clear; from factors that influence society, to small tests at molecular level.
“I almost always have students that I supervise, and I participate in several different research projects. I often initiate several, but I also participate in the completion of many – that's the important thing, that you get somewhere. We have made several breakthroughs with fibres that conduct electricity, like those we discussed in the supervision meeting.

14:00 Patent meeting at Grants and Innovation Office

From the little and back to the big. Nils-Krister checks the time on his mobile and decides there will be a rush to the next meeting at the Grants and Innovation Office. The meeting concerns patents for a new, currently classified project – so we will have to wait outside the closed doors.
“Sometimes I have these types of meetings, but generally my role is quite extroverted. I travel around Sweden with the aim of putting Borås and the University on the map. I try to associate with both innovation circles and within academia. One day I will be following and participating in a research project somewhere in Europe, and the next day I will be talking to a small company or an individual inventor. I often serve as an advisor or consultant and try to contribute with new ideas and suggestions for solutions.

15:15 Smart Textiles Showroom

The patent meeting is over and we meet outside the Smart Textiles Showroom – an exhibition space filled with various textile materials and samples included in the research areas. Nils-Krister Persson gives a tour of everything from paper that has been woven into fabric, textiles that change colour depending on the temperature, to a drapery that falls beautifully.
“Aren’t we really good at draping here at the Swedish School of Textiles? This is another example of how textiles are unique, you can make them flow. After all, textiles are very much a tactile material.

Smart Textiles
Smart Textiles is an environment that comprises a close collaboration between the University of Borås, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden (previously SP), Swerea IVF and the Borås Incubator. The main financiers are Vinnova, Västra Götalandsregionen and Sjuhärds Kommunalförbund. Smart Textiles is also financed by Sparbanksstiftelsen Sjuhärd and other research financiers.

How would you define smart textiles?

“I’m against the word ‘smart’ because at the end of the day, it can mean anything and nothing. There are so many things that must be ‘smart’ these days. Generally, it refers to something new and good. It is worth noting that ‘smart’ can have slightly different meanings in Swedish and English. For most us who speak Swedish, it is close to ‘intelligence’, but in English – where the term originates – it can simply mean ‘good’, ‘advantageous’, ‘a little bit extra’. The smart textiles we are working with today can be used for so much, so ‘intelligence’ alone doesn't come close. However, development is moving forward and maybe one day we will make actual intelligent textiles – after all, a brain is made up of nerve fibres, and textiles by definition are made up of fibres – so why not?!” laughs Nils-Krister and wonders what we would call these fabrics. ‘Smart textiles’ is a concept that should be problematised more and defined”.

What do you think they should be called instead?

“It’s hard to say, perhaps something along the lines of ‘polyfunctional textiles’. It isn’t just a case of researching textiles for the sake of it; textiles propel society forward and make an essential difference and benefit. For a while, the international view was that smart textiles would be the saviour of the western textile industry that was threatened by increased imports, but we cannot see this. The idea of smart textiles is present in all countries.

Nils-Krister Persson does not have much time for rest and relaxation during his working day. He travels a lot, at least once per week and often, the journeys are long – recently he has been in Asia and the USA, then in North Africa (Marrakesh). When he does have time off – which as expected is not very often – he spends time out in nature. He has given survival courses for both club activities and the military.
“I’m an outdoorsy person and most of all, I’m interested in the public health aspect. Maybe that sounds boring, but I think survival is exciting, as well as the fundamentals of how we can pull through emergency situations. And this has a clear link to my daily research, like the water project. At the same time, I think that nature is very peaceful and I spend a lot of time outdoors in Östergötland where I live. The Omberg mountain, lake Tåkern and the nature reserves in the area.

He is used to having many ideas in his head and activities in his calendar at the same time, and he becomes easily restless. Yet at the same time, he is incredibly patient, a prerequisite for any researcher.
“A lot of the time it is about being able to stick with it. Many of the projects are long-term – you don't see the results straight away – this is the case for all innovative work. At its core, it is a difficult, high tempo job, and often I am quite tired. To be able to keep going, you need to find some form of meaning – and it’s there. The research into textiles affects society overall and this social benefit is one of the things that motivates me. I am very interested in society and even if it sounds boring, I like to create job opportunities and tax revenues. I want to contribute to sustainable solutions and new production lines that create jobs in rural areas.

16:30 Photoshoot

The day ends with a photoshoot. The telephone rings, the inbox buzzes. Nils-Krister Persson checks the time again. He talks, gives a tour and happily stands in front of the camera. 
“Sometimes there’ll be photoshoots with models here, really talented models. Generally, there are a lot of people moving around the Textile Fashion Center, and that’s great. I thrive on meeting people where they are, having respectful discussions, exchanging thoughts and ideas; twisting and turning the different perspectives and creating a common arena. Quite frankly, relationships are my biggest motivation.

Read more about Nils-Krister Persson.

Read more about Smart Textiles. (External link)

Read more about the research at the University of Borås

Text: Gabriella Fält
Photo: Patrik Svedberg 
Translation: Semantix