The Tiniest of Revolutions

Nano science can change the world, but its apparel rep needs mending.

The public eyes nanotechnology as science’s next great advance, but its knowledge of the field basically boils down to the notion that scientists are working with really small things. While that view seems simplistic, the point really does hold true. Nanotechnology is simply working with particles that are one-billionth of a meter in size. The potential impact of nanotechnology, however, appears infinitely expansive.

“The range of opportunity is really amazing,” says David Balkin, managing director for the Notre Dame Center for Nano Science and Technology. “And it’s primarily because nano science is redefining what you can do in all the natural sciences.”

The overall premise of nanotechnology is easy to grasp. When scientists explore a material at the nano level, its properties change and its reactivity greatly increases. For example, take a 1 cm cube, with a surface area of 6 cm squared. When that cube is converted to nano particles, its surface area covers more than one football field. As a result, “the reactivity of that material can be enhanced many, many, many fold,” says Dr. Jayan Thomas, a professor at University of Central Florida’s NanoScience Technology Center. “That is the beauty of this technique.”

Interest is accruing rapidly – market researcher Global Information Inc. predicted that the worldwide market for products with nanotechnology would reach $3.3 trillion by 2018. And because it is a boundary-crossing field, it has the potential to alter every facet of society. Researchers at Notre Dame, for example, are exploring everything from carriers for targeted chemotherapy to house paint that can generate solar power.

For years the technology has made its way into apparel, enhancing properties from water repellency without sacrificing breathability to eliminating the growth of bacteria – in essence, self-cleaning shirts.

And yet, nanotechnology in apparel stands at a crossroad. Companies are striving to enhance the durability of these nano functions so they aren’t inhibited by fabric softeners or dissipate after only a few washes. The vast majority of nanotechnology garments are coated or finished, but integrating applications into the primary spinning process would enhance their sturdiness.

The potential side effects of this technology are also beginning to be questioned. Balkin explains that while research and innovations in nanotechnology as a whole push forward at a breakneck pace, regulatory vetting for consumer and environmental safety has yet to catch up, and no one knows what the effects might be. “It’s great technology, but it’s a little bit like the Wild West,” he says.

A few years ago, such questions began to dog the use of silver nanoparticles as a antimicrobial treatment, perhaps the most prominent use of nanotechnology in fabrics. When nanosilver products were washed, did they leech into the environment and cause damage? The Hohenstein Institute, a research and testing organization in the Germany and U.S., commissioned a study in Germany that imagined a very high rate of nanosilver use and washing. Its findings? Bacteria in wastewater didn’t react with nanosilver; no harm to the environment was being inflicted. Nonetheless, negative perceptions of silver nanoparticles remain, says Dr. Jan Beringer, head of research and development in Hohenstein’s Function and Care Department.

“For Germany, before 2009, there was a very large interest in developing garments with nanotechnology,” says Beringer. “Along with our findings, in the last one-two years we recognize here in Germany that interest in industry is starting to come back, but I think this will take more time to trust again in this technology.”

Any negative perceptions may quickly change as nanotechnology ushers in innovations. Dr. Thomas in his Central Florida lab used “nanowhiskers” to create very thin copper wires that can both transmait and store electricity with the potential to be integrated into clothing and accessories. The technology can be paired with items like solar bags to charge personal devices. “If you have a cell phone sitting inside your carry bag,” says Thomas, “you can just charge it by plugging it into this energy storage device. That’s the ultimate aim.” Thomas, who has been in communication with companies to integrate the technology, is optimistic tweaking the materials can enhance the length of time the wires would be able to deliver power and expand the capabilities.

Given the widespread interest in the field, more innovations will arrive. It’s much more than a small chance.