Researchers from the nanotechnology research centre imec in Leuven have joined with textile manufacturer Sioen to create suits designed to protect firefighters from burns wounds.
The team involved in imec’s I-CART also included teams from Ghent university, the Paris fire brigade and technology subcontractors Connect Group from Kampenhout in Flemish Brabant.
“Firefighters are often exposed to extremely high temperatures during interventions,” explained Frederick Bossuyt from CMST, an imec research group at UGent, and research leader of the I-CART project. “But their heat-resistant clothing often makes it difficult for them to assess when they are at risk of being burned, resulting in second- and third-degree burns. The new suit, with built-in temperature sensors, can warn them in time.”
The request for better protective clothing came from the Paris fire brigade, the third-biggest in the world. The brigade is called out to tackle some 5,000 serious fires every year, and incurs about 120 serious burns injuries a year, of second- or third-degree. The search was for anything that would cut that number.
“The project distinguishes itself from previous projects in the context of Smart garments for firefighters because we focused on only one parameter, the temperature, which was studied in depth,” said Vera De Glas, R&D Engineer at Sioen and project leader for the I-CART project. “The result is a reliable protective suit that integrates temperature sensors, an energy-efficient microprocessor, and associated electronics. When the temperature becomes too high, the firefighter receives an audible warning signal so that he can make the right decision in good time.”
The technology for integrating sensors in clothing exists already, but the imec project improved on what is available. The hardware – including a battery that can withstand high temperatures – and the software were developed by Connect Group.
And there was a good reason for restricting this project to one criterion only.
“There have already been a number of large research projects on this topic in the past, but none of these yielded any commercial results,” said De Glas. “The reason for this is that their scope was too wide: tracking not only temperature, but also geolocation, gas detection, etc. That’s why we decided to focus on one dedicated case, i.e. preventing burn injuries by measuring temperature. This made it easier to test and fine-tune our prototypes in the field, an absolute requirement to develop this as a commercially available solution.”
The suits are undergoing testing by the Paris brigade, and are likely to begin being commercialised in 2023. “In order to refine the algorithm that drives the alarm we need more data,” said De Glas. “The suits are also not yet washable, because the electronics are not water resistant.” Sioen is currently developing a coating for the interior and exterior of the suits, to protect the electronics against not only water from the firefighting operation, but also sweat from the firefighter inside the suit.