In the Future, Your Clothes Will Clean the Air, Generate Power and Save Your Life

Hey, reader, what are you wearing?

Did rumpled jeans fit your fancy this morning? Or perhaps a nice cotton-poly blend shirt with a paisley print? Here at PopSci, we prefer this spring’s new line of nanostructured piezoelectric thermo-capable waterproof spider silk fireproof onesies, with added UV protection. Now that sounds like the uniform of the future.

Click here to check out our gallery of future textiles and fabrics.

So a suit with all those qualities doesn’t exist, at least not right now. But textile scientists are making plenty of progress on all these fronts, turning the centuries-old art of textile creation into a science all its own. Nanotechnology, organic chemistry, thermoelectrics and, yes, fashion are all in play here, as scientists and designers come up with clothing that can protect humans’ health, generate electricity and even keep things (including themselves) nice and clean.

Some textile breakthroughs involve new weaving capabilities, like super-tight stitches that block air or nanostructured knits that trap individual molecules. Others involve new fabrics entirely, and others take advantage of new manufacturing methods to give textiles characteristics — like power generation — they’ve never had before.

Here’s a look at how textiles are changing to protect us and our environments — in some cases, even without sacrificing style.

Better Bulletproof Technology, Courtesy of Wool

Kevlar, a synthetic fiber blend, has been stopping bullets for decades, but body armor could soon get a boost from a distinctly natural material. Wool added to Kevlar vests can improve their energy and water absorption, making waterproof, bulletproof vests that are both lighter in weight and cheaper to make, according to a study in Australia. Tightly woven wool reduces the number of Kevlar layers required to stop a bullet from 36 to 30, and wool expands when it absorbs water, which improves Kevlar’s function when it’s wet. Typically, Kevlar’s bullet-stopping abilities are hampered in water, so it must be waterproofed in a lengthy and expensive process. Wool could be a cheap, renewable way to produce better body armor.

A Fireproof Suit That Withstands Blistering Temps

If the rocket powering the Bloodhound 1,000 MPH car were to start a fire, driver Andy Green would probably be just fine, thanks to a special flameproof suit, designed by Lamination Technologies in Pennsylvania. Made of a special fiber, the suit can withstand temperatures of 1,800 degrees F. The suit’s designers structured the fabric to prevent pockets of hot air from forming, which also protects the wearer against extreme heat. A single-layered suit would protect a wearer against serious burns for about 7 seconds, which according to Lamination Technologies is double the performance of the previous best-in-class fire-retardant suit. With two layers, a wearer could withstand fire for 12 seconds and suffer burn injuries of 16 percent, equivalent to second-degree burns. And, because we know you want to see such an extreme piece of fabric in action, you can watch an LT test suit get crispy in this mannequin test.

Masks That Collect and Trap Gas, Instead of Blocking It

This gas mask (and stylish matching hood!) works like a sponge with very specific holes, each pore perfectly designed to soak up only the substances you want. The cloth is made of cellulose fibers and crystalline compounds, arranged in what are called metal-organic framework molecules. These frameworks form a porous structure, which trap and store molecules of gas. They are difficult to weave into a garment, but Cornell researchers were able to bind the MOF molecules with cellulose fibers (like cotton, for example) and make a big bolt of fabric. Then Cornell undergrads (pictured here) designed a gas mask out of it. The fabric could be designed to guard against any gaseous compound by custom-fitting pores to their individual molecular structures.

Soundproofing Curtains

Noise is annoying, but if the alternative is holing up in a sunless soundproof room with padded walls that conjure feelings of institutionalization, well, that’s annoying, too. New dense yet translucent curtains, designed by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Research (Empa), could do the trick instead. First, the Empa team developed mathematical models to measure the acoustic qualities of a given fabric structure. This helped determine the ideal characteristics of a sound-quenching textile, like the size of the minuscule pores among its woven fibers. Pores would help stifle sound by slowing it down through friction. Textile designer Annette Douglas (shown hanging curtains here) chose translucent, flame-retardant yarns and determined how they should be woven together to achieve the proper acoustic qualities. The final fabric is lightweight and translucent, but its weave pattern allows it to absorb up to five times more sound than typical light curtains, according to Empa. They could be used anywhere designers want to reduce noise without sacrificing style, from hotel rooms to auditoriums.

Souped-Up Waterproofing

Gore-Tex is getting some competition from the fabrics of the future, some of which can repel water at any temperature and others that can block harmful UV rays as well as wetness. A while back, we heard about a new scald-proof waterproofing method that protects against hot liquids as well as cool ones, which could be a major breakthrough for those unfortunate clumsy souls who spill coffee all over their wetsuits. The scald-proof fabric, created by chemists at the University of Minnesota, involves a cocktail of carbon nanotubes, Teflon, and cotton fabric that can repel hot water at 167 °F. Then this month, researchers in China announced they had made a hydrophobic, or water-blocking, fiber that also blocks all but about one percent of ultraviolet rays. It’s made of a cotton base coated with zinc oxide nanorods and zinc oxide crystallites, the latter two lending the material its ultraviolet protection capabilities. A silica layer on top of those coatings makes it waterproof. While production on those materials is still far off, the current generation of rain coats is full of amazing tech. Polartec has a new breathable yet waterproof rain jacket called the NeoShell, which lets humid air (read: sweat) out and keeps rain, sleet and waterfalls from getting in. Check out our reviewer’s take here.

Converting Sound Waves into Energy

Sometimes, in places not blessed with noise-proof draperies, you find yourself in a very noisy environment. Might as well take advantage of a loud situation and charge your iPod, right? Students at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates are working on piezoelectric materials that harvest energy from ambient noise or ultrasonic waves. “It was worth looking into places where a lot of mechanical energy or noise is wasted, like footsteps on a pavement or noise in football stadiums,” explained Asalan Mohammad, an electrical engineering student, on the Arabic news site EdArabia. Piezoelectric materials generate a voltage when pressure is applied through movement, bending or vibration. Sound waves, especially in loud environments, could conceivably induce enough pressure to create a small voltage that might be enough to charge a portable device. The devices could be embedded in clothing or shoes, the students say. Their technology could also be used to harness the ultrasonic sounds made by animals in aquariums, according to the blog Green Prophet. Or it could be buried in roads, harvesting the kinetic energy of cars and using it to power streetlamps.

Boots Made for Watt-Generating

The University of Auckland wants to put generators in your kicks. The boots would use a type of generator also used to harvest energy from ocean waves, which uses movement to build up a charge. These humble, cheap, rubber generators could harvest up to a watt of power if embedded in shoes, say researchers in New Zealand. These researchers built a 4-inch plunger-shaped dielectric elastomer generator, pictured here. The generator is also known as an artificial muscle and works differently than a piezoelectric material (featured elsewhere in this gallery), which generate a charge from quick, slight motions. Dielectric elastomer actuators compress and expand more gradually. It costs only $3.70 to manufacture, so similar small generators could be cheap add-ons in a host of clothing and shoes.

Second Skins and Future Sutures

The biological, rather than just aesthetic, applications of modern textiles are many and varied — from antibacterial clothing and wound dressings to sutures, artificial ligaments and maybe someday, even artificial organs. Various synthetic and natural fibers can be used to make wound dressings and artificial orthopedic devices; stretchy, biodegradable polymers are useful for stitches and tissue engineering scaffolds; and many new fibers have innate antibacterial properties. A new class of polymer nanoparticles breach bacteria’s cell walls and leak out their contents to kill them; the particles could be woven into clothing or sheets in hospitals to help fight drug-resistant bacteria. Last year, researchers at McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine developed a versatile polymer mesh fiber that can protect against a wide range of threats. It contains enzymes that catalyze anti-bacterial compounds and can spur nerve agent detoxifiers, among other helpful functions. Textiles inspired by nature are also medically useful — a couple years ago, a Florida biotech firm called Sharklet Technologies designed an adhesive film with sharkskin-like ripples that prevent bacteria from hanging on.

A Suit Powered by Body Heat, Movement and Solar Energy

Designers in the UK are working on special suits aimed at lightening a soldier’s load. The Solar Soldier concept draws on thermoelectric and photovoltaic properties to generate power. Developers say the system could provide continuous power for a radio, GPS and weapons but weigh half a traditional battery pack. British researchers are working on a new type of fabric that combines solar PV cells and thermoelectric devices, which could even serve as a type of wearable stealth cloak for its heat-absorbing properties. Infantrymen who have to carry less weight would be more mobile, more comfortable and perhaps more effective, the researchers (and common sense) say. So these uniforms would be a major advantage for the army that brings them to the battlefield.

Clothes That Clean Up Nice

…And you even look nice in them. British designer Helen Storey, who has worked for Valentino, owned her own fashion label, and won Designer of the Year in the UK, has a scientist sister and is intrigued by bringing science and art together. Her latest collection is called Primitive Streak, and includes a dress depicting a female spinal column, a frock that depicts lung function, and so on. In October 2010, she debuted a dress called “Herself,” a white, black and indigo number with a design that resembles lung bronchial tubes. The goal was to illustrate that textiles can eliminate pollutants from the air, “so that we can breathe more beautifully,” the project website explains. Storey called it “potentially the world’s first air purifying dress.” In March, Storey went casual and debuted her second line, “Field of Jeans,” using denim embedded with catalytic properties that also help purify air.

Self-Cleaning Clothes

When you dirty up your clothing, a host of laundry chemicals can help — or attempt to help — remove the stains, but wouldn’t it be better if the clothes just took care of themselves? Researchers in Australia are coating natural fibers with nanoparticles that remove stains, even tricky ones like red wine stains, when they’re exposed to sunlight. Nanomaterials researcher Walid Daoud coats wool, silk and hemp fibers with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, which is also used in paint and sunscreen, among other applications. The Ti02 forms oxidizing radicals in the presence of water and ultraviolet light, and the radicals break down organic matter but leave the fibers intact.

New Game Uniforms

Maybe we can’t all have Michael Phelps’ sharkskin swimsuit, but who says high-tech clothes can’t be for the masses? This new shirt, for instance, is designed specifically for games of tag. Electronics giant Philips is making a flexible padded fabric with woven LEDs called Lumalive, which will launch in the third quarter of this year. A human-computer-interaction lab in Ontario used the fabric to make T-shirts for a new game called TagURIt, in which virtual “tokens” can jump from one player’s shirt to another. The tokens look like characters from Super Mario Bros (of course). In all, the shirts cost about $20,000, according to Discovery News — but designers think if they can bring the price down to around $100, it’ll catch on. Other electronics could be embedded in clothes to track athletes’ heart rates or other vital signs. At the NFL Combine, some football prospects used special Under Armor shirts with a triaxial accelerometer, a heart-rate monitor, and a breathing monitor included to better get a sense of what’s happening on the inside of these recruits.
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