Fabric of the future: University researchers invent self-healing, toxin-neutralizing fabric

Most of us will have experienced this before: our favourite shirt gets a tear and we’re left with only three options – break out the sewing kit, pretend we’re experimenting with the ‘grunge style’, or chuck it in the bin.

Well, those days may soon be in the past, as researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Drexel University have created a fabric coating that can “heal” itself when soaked in water.

The fabrics are dipped into a series of liquids to create layers of a polyelectrolyte coating.

The film, made up of layers of positive and negative polymers, form strong molecular bonds when wet, allowing it to fuse two separate pieces of fabric together. Once the fabric is dry, the bond holds up, making it seem brand-new. 

Here’s a video demonstrating how it works: 

The polymers are made from proteins similar to those found in the teeth of a squid’s suckers.

“Fashion designers use natural fibres made of proteins like wool or silk that are expensive and they are not self-healing,” said Melik Demirel, Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

“We were looking for a way to make fabrics self-healing using conventional textiles. So we came up with this coating technology,” he added.

The team also went one step further, incorporating enzymes into the coating that can break down any toxins it’s exposed to before it can reach the wearer’s skin.

According to researchers, the coating can help reduce workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals, like farmers and pesticides, as well as factory workers and toxic materials.

Another possible use is to make medical meshes that could aid in minimizing infections for quick recovery.

The U.S. military also sees potential in the invention to produce suits that can protect soldiers from biological or chemical weapons, which was why the Army Research Office and the Office of Naval Research supported its development.

Researchers have so far been dipping whole garments into the various solutions, but Demirel said the coating can be applied to the threads first, prior to manufacturing.

The team’s findings were published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Image via Demirel Lab/Penn State

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