Meet an Innovative Fabric Creating Quiet

MIT researchers discover a surprising solution to everyday noise.

Adorable puppy hiding under the sofa at home.

(Leszek Glasner /

Here’s some good news for everyone worried about the noise pollution that defines everyday urban life. In a new study titled “Single Layer Silk and Cotton Woven Fabrics for Acoustic Emission and Active Sound Suppression,” an interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) present their groundbreaking lightweight fabric that can act as a sound barrier in multiple contexts. It significantly cancels out noise, and can potentially create quiet areas anywhere, even in large spaces, as ZME Science reports. 

What is its soundproofing secret?
This hair-thin fabric is multi talented! In a smaller-space setting, when voltage is applied,  this new fabric can generate sound waves that can offset unwanted noise by disrupting particular sound frequencies. This technique echoes the way that noise-cancelling headphones work, which use microphones to identify external sounds and then produce opposing sound waves to disrupt the background noise. In tests, the researchers were able to reduce the volume of sounds by up to 65 decibels. 

In addition, this innovative fabric can be manipulated, again using voltage, to remain still. This sound-reducing technique works especially well in larger spaces such as an airplane or a room. As sound is actually an acoustic vibration in the air, this method effectively prevents noise in spaces behind the fabric, reflecting sound like a mirror reflects light, but reflecting sound back towards the source. In this “still” mode, the researchers found that sound transmission dropped by 75 percent.

This work, Techspot details, builds on earlier research that created silky fabric that can act as a microphone and amplify sound. In this study, however, the team saw that they could also use their material to do the opposite, and filter out sounds.

At the heart of this technology are piezoelectric fibers, generating an electrical signal when deformed, and woven into everyday fabric like silk to create a sound-canceling system. In the words of the study’s lead author, Grace (Noel) Yang, quoted in ZME Science, “While we can use fabric to create sound, there is already so much noise in our world. We thought creating silence could be even more valuable.” 

Yoel Fink, the senior author of the new study, and an MIT professor in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, quoted in ZME Science, hails this discovery as “A new mechanism for creating quiet spaces with a thin sheet of fabric.”

A multitude of real-world applications
While much work remains to be done before considering a commercial rollout, the potential practical uses of this innovation are exciting. The use of everyday fabrics like silk, muslin and canvas in creating these noise-suppressing materials could make this new technology an accessible solution in many noisy settings, with materials tackling multiple sound frequencies found in the complex sounds around us, as Scientific American discusses. Think transforming a noisy bedroom into an oasis of calm, or a hectic office space into a more serene one through strategically-placed material.

The Jerusalem Post details practical applications that take in dividers in open workspaces or thin, fabric walls that block sounds. It describes a scenario in which the noisy sports program your neighbors are watching in the middle of the night is disrupting your sleep because the sound in their apartment causes your shared wall to vibrate. This soundproofing fabric could help you suppress this disruptive noise, as you could place the silk fabric on your side of the shared wall, forcing the vibrations to remain still, stopping the noise generated.

This innovation holds promise that goes beyond mere convenience. In our hectic urban environments, the ability to create calmer surroundings relatively easily, with minimal structural tweaks, can positively impact mental health and boost productivity.

It could also improve people’s physical health. As SME Science points out, estimates suggest that in Europe alone, chronic noise exposure contributes to 48,000 new cases of heart disease every year, while disrupting the sleep patterns of 6.5 million people.

In a world in which, as the study concludes, “reducing unwanted noise persists as a significant challenge encountered in daily life“ but silence is so much harder to find, this cutting-edge, sound-absorbing fabric offers a real advance in soundproofing our surroundings. This research has  been warmly welcomed by a range of organizations concerned about noise pollution, including the Quiet Communities nonprofit, with a mission to reduce harmful noise.

The MIT scientists see their research as just the start of a positive form of environmental control. Through experimenting with the types  and arrangement of fibers, and their electrical inputs, they hope to enhance the fabric’s noise-canceling qualities even more in the near future.

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