Researchers at North Carolina State University are using nanotechnology to develop “smart textiles” that will not only keep emergency services personnel and the military safe without sacrificing comfort or ease of use, but may also have numerous other widespread uses.
Dr. Juan Hinestroza, an assistant professor in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science at NC State, and researchers at the University of Puerto Rico pioneered the method to develop chemical-resistant textiles by attaching nanolayers of different polymers to natural fibres.
The layers are 20 nanometres thick and can control what passes through the layer using a process called selective transport.
“These layers are customised for different chemicals,” Hinestroza said. “We can specifically block warfare agents like mustard or nerve gas, or industrial chemicals, while still allowing air and moisture to pass through to make the fabric breathable.”
Chemicals are blocked, Hinestroza said, when they bind to the polymers of the fibres, which are made of materials that are attractive to the chemical agents.
These fabrics could be made into garments that offer very high levels of protection. “We can attach hundreds of nanolayers to a fibre without affecting its comfort or usability. This idea has been tried in the semiconductor industry, but hasn’t been achieved with flexible fabrics,” he said.
The nanolayers adhere to natural fibres by electrostatic force, similar to the way that magnets attract or repel depending on the electromagnetic charge, Hinestroza said.
There are literally dozens of potential uses of the technology involving smart textiles, according to Hinestroza.
“Imagine gloves coated with arthritis drugs, military uniforms coated with antibacterial layers to prevent infection in case of a wound, and comfortable clothing that protecs against several chemical and biological warfare agents,” he said..