The exercise sweatband of the future may not just collect what runs down your brow, it could also gather important health information.

So too the diapers of years to come, which may be able to diagnose diseases through a baby's urine.

A small cloth patch on soldiers' uniforms could reveal chemical exposure levels, and a shirt might be able to pinpoint your latest ailment.

Those are just some of the potential applications contemplated by scientists at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, in their research into so-called fabric chips.

"We're interested in developing wearable sensor technology for health applications," said Christa Brosseau, an associate professor of chemistry.

The idea is to develop portable or wearable fabrics that take sweat, phlegm, blood or pollutants from the environment and use special materials that allow scientists to quickly analyze them for chemical markers.

The researchers have already proven this can be done. A paper published by the chemistry journal Analyst earlier this year showed certain chemicals could be detected using fabric chips.

Fabric scanned with special device

The fabric itself is made from silk encased in brass and treated with silver nanoparticles. Brosseau said the combination of materials enhances the scattering of light.

Fabric chips

A study published by the chemistry journal Analyst earlier this year showed certain chemicals could be detected using fabric chips. (CBC)

That's important because the fabric is scanned with a special device and a process called surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy.

It detects the vibration signature of particular biomarkers, essentially chemical footprints used to diagnose certain diseases.

Much of the research has been propelled by Brosseau's collaboration with scientists in South Africa who are looking for efficient ways to detect tuberculosis.

It's a deadly disease, but proper diagnosis in South Africa can take weeks, Brosseau said. Doctors are also limited in the technology they can use in remote areas with no electricity or refrigeration.

That has led to a push to find a better way.

Brosseau's work is paid for by Grand Challenges Canada, an organization funded by the federal government that focuses on research to help the developing world.

"We would like to be able to detect biomarkers of tuberculosis," Brosseau said.

Looking at practical considerations

"The idea is you could have a fabric chip built into a handkerchief and they could cough into this handkerchief and then it could be easily analyzed."

The Saint Mary's University research is eyeing practical considerations. For instance, they've already looked at whether the silver nanoparticles shed if the fabric is machine-washed. The good news is, they don't.

"That was really a positive sign that it could be incorporated into textile and used later for detection purpose," said Marwa Yasmin, an undergraduate student helping in the research.

Scientists, Brosseau said, also want to learn more about the spread of tuberculosis. Special patches, for instance, could be installed in taxis and schools and to monitor how easily the disease spreads.

Urine, blood and saliva are complex mixes of biomarkers. The next stage in the research, Brosseau said, is to develop a way to collect only a targeted disease molecule on the nanoparticles.

"The idea is you would have a fabric chip for tuberculosis, which would be different than a fabric chip that you might use for explosive detection, for example," Brosseau said. "Because they are completely different chemical signatures."