Future Tech: Nano-Manufactured Clothing

Can we interest you in a suit that banishes dirt, sweat, and germs, sir?

By Wendy Marston
Jan 1, 2000 6:00 AMApr 25, 2023 8:23 PM


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Hey, buddy, watch that cup of coffee. Whoa! Hate to tell you this, but that brown splatter really stands out on the floral tie. How much did that thing set you back? Seventy-five bucks? Ouch. Great suit too. Worsted wool, eh? Hey, did you run all the way to the office today-I mean, you can't ignore those dark sweat marks creeping down the pinstripes. But I'm sure no one will notice if you hold your arms at your sides and carry a file folder in front of that tie. Maybe you should skip lunch, head home for a change, and get that stuff to the dry cleaner. Use your lunch money to cover the bill.

That was yesterday. Tomorrow, embarrassing-and expensive-clothing disasters will be history, because textile designers are teaming up with materials scientists to develop fabrics that remain fresh and wearable regardless of what you spill on them. Familiar cottons, wools, and polyesters are getting face-lifts from the atoms up. No longer will clothes simply adorn the body and passively shield it from the elements. Fabrics are being coached, molecule by molecule, to engage with their environments, to get in the ring with odor, bacteria, heat, cold, and dirt.

Take that tie stain. Actually, don't take that stain. Buy a tie with Teflon and dribble away. The slippery polymer from DuPont is also making its way into jackets, shirts, and almost anything wearable. What once kept burned grease from sticking to frying pans has been modified to protect individual fibers. The resulting fabrics lose little in the fashion jungle, judging from their appearance in the windows of Hugo Boss and Prada, and they slice dry-cleaning bills in half.

A stickier problem is the damage the body itself inflicts on clothes. Sweating is a human's clumsy attempt to adjust to everyday temperature swings. Textile engineers are working to create so-called phase-change fabrics that keep the body perpetually comfortable and sweat free. A waxy compound developed a decade ago changes from a solid to a liquid when heated and then slowly releases that heat and changes back into a solid when cooled-like H2O changing from ice to water to ice. nasa and the U.S. Air Force planned to put this material into gloves to keep pilots' hands warm, but the idea fell prey to budget cuts. Colorado-based entrepreneurs Bernie Perry and Ed Payne purchased patent rights for the compound and, after years of testing, supplied retail stores with hiking boots lined with cloth permeated with tiny capsules of the phase-change wax. Their material, manufactured under the name Outlast, is being made into things like socks, which keep feet within a comfortable 10-degree-variable temperature zone.

More sophisticated phase-change fabrics are on the way. Research scientist Tyrone Vigo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent the last decade developing a polymer called polyethylene glycol. "The polymer looks like a helix," he says. "It coils and uncoils and acts like a thermal spring." Like the Outlast fabric, clothing impregnated with Vigo's phase-change molecules keeps the wearer at a steady temperature. But temperature control is only the beginning. Vigo's versatile material performs other tricks that come in handy when things turn sweaty. "Polyethylene glycol has a lot of hydrogen and oxygen, so it's hydrophilic, or water loving," he says. When the molecule's thermal spring encounters damp heat-perspiration, for example-it uncoils, trapping the warmth, and draws water away from the skin. If a cool breeze comes up and a wearer stops perspiring, the spring reacts and coils, releasing heat. The fabric can be formulated to maintain a range of temperatures, kicking into action only if conditions get too hot or cold.

Developing a cost-effective process for bonding polyethylene glycol to fabric took years. But now it's show time. Tom Lister, president of Wisconsin Global Technologies, has leased Vigo's patent on the material and confidently predicts the polymer-coated fabric will be on store shelves within the next year. Lister breathlessly rattles off the virtues of clothing containing the miracle molecule: "Nontoxic, antimicrobial, eliminates all odor-causing microbes, antistatic, antiwrinkle, and there's no shrinkage." The elasticity of the molecules makes all fabrics tougher and wrinkle resistant, while the molecules' tendency to soak up water diffuses static charges. Wisconsin Global Technologies' spin-off company, ThermoSense, has begun manufacturing prototypes of phase-change slippers and gloves.

Those springlike polyethylene glycol molecules will be a boon for the medical industry as well. For reasons still not totally understood, microorganisms cannot survive on fabrics treated with the polymer. Perhaps the water-loving molecules make the clothing so dry that bacteria cannot survive, or more likely the molecules alter fabric fibers so that bacteria cannot attach themselves. John Artley, president of Bayshore Holdings in New York City, doesn't care; he's just happy to exploit the combination of absorbency and antibacterial activity. Possibilities include bandages that stop infection, and scrubs to protect doctors from contamination. "We plan on making bedding, blankets, footwear, wound-care dressings, and incontinence products," Artley says. The fda is reviewing the products.

And there's more than one way to engineer killer clothing. HaloSource in Seattle developed a process to incorporate N-halamines, compounds used in swimming pools to stabilize chlorine, into clothing fibers. Attaching N-halamines to cotton gives chlorine atoms something to hang on to and then, just as in a swimming pool, the chlorine kills germs. This year, HaloSource's process will hit the market in chlorine-engineered socks, diapers, bandages, medical uniforms, and air filters. When a garment begins to lose its potency, it can be washed in chlorine bleach for a recharge.

Meanwhile, Acordis Acrylic Fibers in Bradford, England, has engineered a fabric that targets other pests-like those found in a bed. Typically, a person shares an evening of rest with 2 million dust mites, microscopic critters that feed off human skin cells and cause health problems. Acordis's team of entomologists, chemists, and materials scientists came up with a surprising twist on acrylic fabrics. To kill dust mites, the textile needed to take down the middleman, the fungus Aspergillus repens, which breaks down flakes of human skin into dust-mite meals. The company found a way to get acrylic fibers to absorb a slow-release chemical that stops the fungus from reproducing. Without the fungus, the mites eventually starve.

Even more advanced engineered clothing will emerge from devices that assemble textiles atom by atom. Such nano-technology mills could completely transform how fabric is made. No longer would giant factories turn out hundreds of tons of cloth a day. Instead, says materials engineer David Forrest, president of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, nano-mills will spit out custom fabrics from contraptions the size of photocopy machines. "Raw materials such as nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen will be put into a desk-size unit," explains Forrest, "which will rearrange the elements and control the trajectories of all the molecules."

What's he got in mind? Clothing that incorporates sensors to detect rips and tears, alerting paramecium-size robotic crews to execute repairs by means of the same atomic manipulation used to make the garment in the first place. Electro-mechanically controlled molecules in the fibers could change the shape of a garment with the tap of a button.

Nano-manufactured clothing might even launder itself. "Robotic devices similar to mites could periodically scour the fabric surfaces," says Forrest. These micro-maids could move the dirt to a collection area to be picked up. Then they could transfer water through the fabric when it's time for a rinse. How much of that dream is wishful thinking? "It may be extraordinarily difficult to do this," he says, "but there's no scientific barrier."

For a glimpse of new, highly designed and stylized Japanese textiles, go to the Nuno Web site: www.nuno.com/home.html.

For the latest in nasa's textile technology, search their Web site: www.gsfc.nasa.gov.

For a concise analysis of the world of fashion, geo-textiles, and architectural textiles, read Techno Textiles: Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design, by Sarah E. Braddock and Marie O'Mahony (Thames & Hudson, 1998). Also check out O'Mahony's Web site: www.techconsultant.co.uk.

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