A major technological breakthrough that could soon lead to the production of futuristic strong, light and flexible 'smart' clothing materials is being claimed by scientists in Australia and the US.

The CSIRO Textile and Fibre Technology (CTFT), in partnership with the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas, has adapted textile technologies used to spin wool and other fibres to produce yarns made solely from carbon nanotubes (CNTs).

Initial research into the potential uses of the new material is focused on the production of vests and 'soft' body armour to provide protection from bullets and other small ballistic missiles.

But because synthetically-made CNTs have a range of unique physical properties - including the ability to conduct electricity and heat - the ability to incorporate electronic sensors and actuators into CNT yarn also means it could, for example, be used to produce garments that act as electrically-driven 'muscles.'

The development of spun CNT yarns is based on the concept of scaling down the dimensions of conventional fibres and yarns from the microscale to the nanoscale using the ancient technology of twist-based spinning.

"We believe CNTs, either as pure yarns or composites, will revolutionise engineered fabrics due to their excellent strength and toughness and their high electrical and thermal conductivities," says CTFT's research team leader, Ken Atkinson.

A US patent application on the new technology was recently lodged.