Nanotechnology in your clothes: science-fiction no more

There’s a terrifying scene in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Best of Both Worlds” in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard has been kidnapped by a malevolent race of techno-zombies called the Borg.

The scene depicts Picard, lying on an examination table, partly modified or ‘assimilated,’ waiting for further upgrades. A protruding probe is then inserted into the side of Picard’s head, after which Picard’s skin tone turns to a ghostly white colour. Later on, in Star Trek Voyager, viewers learn how the Borg turn people into mindless, half-man, half-machine drones: nanotechnology. Microscopic machines that are injected into a victim’s bloodstream and, ultimately, strip a person of his/her identity and free-will.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Fibres containing nanogenerators. Woven into clothing, these fibers could power devices using energy from our daily movements. Image courtesy of Gary Meek.

Fibres containing nanogenerators. Woven into clothing, these fibers could power devices using energy from our daily movements. Image courtesy of Gary Meek.

Fortunately, modern nanotechnology is nowhere near as advanced (or as frightening) as the Borg. In fact, modern nanotechnology, as an emerging scientific field, can have wide-ranging applications in everything from military technology, medical breakthroughs, consumer products and even down to the very clothes you wear. Yes you heard right. There are tiny bots in your clothes. But relax, the most common type of nano-enhanced clothing to be created so far is a simple combination of a conventional material like cotton or polyester with nanoparticles, which improve the performance or add novel properties to the fabric. Some of which are as follows:

Properties of Nanomaterials Used in Textiles

 

Nanomaterial

Properties

Carbon black nanoparticles

  • Abrasion resistance

Nanofibres

  • Higher tensile strength
  • Good chemical resistance
  • Electrical conducting
Carbon nanotubes
  • Exceptionally strong (100x tensile strength of steel)
  • Lightweight
  • Electrically conducting
  • Thermally conducting
Metal oxide nanoparticles
  • Photocatalytic
  • Electrically conductive
  • UV Protection
  • Antimicrobial
Metal nanoparticles
  • Antimicrobial
  • Solar cells
  • Aesthetic properties
Clay nanoparticles
  • Electrical resistance
  • Chemical resistance
  • Fire retardant
  • UV shielding
Table credit: Will Soutter, Nanotechnology in textiles, AZO Nano

So what does this mean? Nanotechnology can quite literally revolutionize the way we wear, clean and perceive our clothes. For example, one application of this technology in clothing is the manufacturing of bullet-proof vest. Textile fibers made with carbon nanotubes have the potential to be seventeen times tougher than kevlar. Other nanomaterials have UV-blocking, antimicrobial, antistatic, flame-resistant, water- and oil-repellent, wrinkle-resistant, and self-cleaning properties. According to Will Soutter of AZO Nano, nanotechnology can also have a positive environmental impact on the production of clothing. Finishing processes such as dying and chemical treatments of fabrics often produce large amounts of contaminated waste water. Lamination and coating often consume large amounts of energy, and are limited by the amount of material that can be applied to a fabric. Nanoformulations for dyes can reduce the amount of colouring agent needed, thereby reducing the amount of wastewater produced. Nanocoatings are capable of modifying fabric properties much more drastically while having a much more permanent effect.

Bullet proof suit made with several sheets of carbon nano-tubes - a state-of-the-art puncture-proof and bullet-resistant material sourced through a company that provides anti-ballistic gear for the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Bullet proof suit made with several sheets of carbon nano-tubes – a state-of-the-art puncture-proof and bullet-resistant material sourced through a company that provides anti-ballistic gear for the U.S. Army Special Forces.

According to Michael Berger, Founder of Nanowerk LLC and editor of Nanowerk.com, a recently published research paper in the February 26, 2016 online edition of ACS Nano talks about electronic and photonic nanotechnologies that are integrated with textiles. Berger says that, in the near future, it will be possible to use nanotechnology to create smart textiles that perform electronic or electric functions. In other words, it is conceivable that we could see flexible touchscreens and displays built directly into your clothes one day. You could literally wear your next-generation smartphone or computer on your sleeves, including the batteries that power them. Other possible functionalities include medical applications: scientists are currently working on making an auto-diagnostic textile material that can release specified drugs into patients.

For now though, there has been somewhat of a reluctance to embrace nanotechnology. As a frontier science, there are still many concerns about it: questions about the long-term effect on human health and the environment, time between research and commercialization of the technology and the lack of regulations and standards on both the national and international level.

But regardless of the obstacles, nanotechnology remains an exciting and quite literally Earth-changing technology that deserves scientific curiosity and exploration. As Captain Picard once said: “Things are only impossible until they are not!”

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portrait of William Lee

About the Author

This is Will, current content coordinator at Trusted Clothes. Will is a writer at heart with a journalism print background. An award-winning writer and video producer, Will divides his time between super-heroing at Trusted Clothes and being a complete die-hard Star Trek fan. And wearing funny Captain Picard shirts too.

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