Detailing their technique in a Nature paper titled "Diode fibres for fabric-based optical communications", the researchers started with a polymer fibre preform whose bulk contained hundreds of micro-sized LEDs, alongside hollow channels through which they fed copper or tungsten wires as the preform was heated up and drawn into thin fibres.
The mechanical deformation led the conducting wires to eventually make contact with the embedded devices, while all the electronics (contact wire and LEDs or photosensors) remained encased and protected within the fibre. With this approach, the researchers were able to connect hundreds of diodes in parallel inside a single fibre, with devices spaced less than 20 centimetres apart.
As a proof-of-concept, the researchers realized two types of in-fibre devices: light-emitting and photodetecting p–i–n diodes, with built-in light collimation and focusing in the fibre cladding.
As the paper's title suggest, they were able to establish a 3MHz bi-directional optical communication link (think LiFi) between two fabrics woven with receiver–emitter fibres. Once woven into soft, washable fabrics, the "diode fibres" as the researchers call them were able to withstand ten machine-wash cycles, remaining fully functional and proving their worth for future smart fabrics.