Engineering Textiles to Keep Us Healthier and Happier

Using new technologies, researchers are creating smart fabrics that could protect us from disease and make our lives better

6 min read
Engineering Textiles to Keep Us Healthier and Happier
Photo: Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory/Cornell University

Robots that fight fires, cars that drive themselves, clothes that prevent illness—are they the stuff of science fiction? Or are they more likely than we think? “Life in 2030,” a one-hour special from the radio series Engineers of the New Millennium, explores the latest discoveries to give listeners an idea of how technology will shape our lives in the not-too-distant future.

Engineering Textiles to Keep Us Healthier and Happier


Susan Hassler: Here’s a question for you. How much would you pay for a T-shirt that keeps you from getting sick? Or how about a pair of pants that you never have to wash? Those are the kinds of questions we could be asking in the year 2030. The field of textile engineering is combining some of the oldest technologies—like weaving and sewing, with the newest advances in nanotechnology. Mia Lobel has more.

Mia Lobel: From the moment men and women first covered themselves with loincloths, fibers have been an integral part of our lives.

Juan Hinestroza: Well, fibers are the ultimate engineering material. In fact, the first engineering material that was developed were fibers for humans.

Mia Lobel: Juan Hinestroza is an associate professor of fiber science and director of the Textiles Nanotechnology Lab at Cornell University in New York.

Juan Hinestroza: …from the time you wake up on a pillow to a toothbrush, to comb your hair with the brush, your clothes, napkins. All those materials that you see every day, they are made of fibers. Toilet paper, socks, shoes. And then if we make new functions from those, we can definitely impact the quality of life.

Mia Lobel: Hinestroza envisions carpets that know where you’re walking and can react by turning on lights ahead of you, buildings that change facades overnight, and clothing that can keep you healthy.

Juan Hinestroza: So, what we want to do is to improve the life of people, make the life of people better through science. We like to make science that can have impact in other parts of the globe.

Marian McCord: Thinking about the global impact of malaria, thinking that a million people die every year, most of them children under the age of five, and the one thing standing between most of them and disease is a textile really brought me some clarity about what I wanted to work on.

Mia Lobel: Marian McCord is an associate professor of biomedical and textile engineering at North Carolina State University. She’s experimenting with a mosquito net that works without the chemical-based neurotoxins now used to kill mosquitoes.

Marian McCord: And we just started thinking about what were some other ways that we could disable, essentially, the mosquito—disarm, per se, the mosquito—and interrupt the mosquito’s ability to transmit the disease.

Mia Lobel: If they could engineer textiles to do this, they could potentially curb the spread of malaria without using conventional insecticides. Mosquitoes are quickly becoming resistant to these chemicals, which present potential risks for both people and the environment. She’s also working on mosquito bite-proof clothing.

Marian McCord: So imagine a long-sleeved pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt that are very, very comfortable to wear in a hot, humid environment—such as the typical environment where you might contract malaria—but is also completely protective. So instead of spraying yourself with a chemical or instead of having to wear something very thick and uncomfortable, you can be completely comfortable and protected at the same time.

Mia Lobel: By using new technologies, conventional textiles can be made smarter.

Quan Shi: So we have our fabric here. It’s only a regular polypropylene fiber and it’s a raw material. It doesn’t have anything on there. So if we put it inside here in the plasma chamber and—let me turn on the gas on the other side…

Mia Lobel: Research professor Quan Shi is working at the textiles lab at North Carolina State University. He’s using a technique called atmospheric plasma treatment to make this piece of fabric more water absorbent. He puts a piece of the fabric onto a clear plastic plate inside a transparent chamber. He closes the door, lowers another plate on top, then hits the fabric with a high-voltage burst of helium gas.

Quan Shi: And after that treatment, we take them out. It’s ready to go. If we add antimicrobial agents on there, it will turn into antimicrobial fabric. And if we mix some drugs in there, it can treat some diseases. That’s how it works.

Mia Lobel: Marian McCord says this will change the way we look at clothing.

Marian McCord: That’s right. We’re really talking about completely enhancing the functionality of clothing beyond just the fashion side or, as you said, the most basic side, where we have to cover ourselves. I mean, the textiles and clothing are ubiquitous. We’re all wearing them all the time, so why not take advantage of that fact and use the textile to its fullest ability?

Juan Hinestroza: So now we’re going to my lab—it’s located in the human ecology building. It’s a brand new facility specifically designed to integrate science and design at Cornell.

Mia Lobel: Back at the Cornell textiles lab, professor Juan Hinestroza is sorting through drawers filled with fabric samples colored purple, green, and blue.

Juan Hinestroza: We have plenty of samples here. These are nanofibers coated with metal organic frameworks. You see, it looks like a tissue—it’s very, very thin—you put it in the air and it would float. These blue crystals are actually the molecules that can expand and contract and capture the gases.

Mia Lobel: Gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. These fabrics are engineered to keep you healthier by absorbing dangerous atmospheric molecules you might otherwise breathe in. They can detect the presence of pollen and other allergens and warn the wearer to keep away. They can also hold and release medications gradually throughout the day, so instead of shots, a diabetic could receive insulin through a patch on his or her clothing. All of these things are possible through nanotechnology.

Juan Hinestroza: Basically, we are control freaks. We love to control things at the nanoscale. So, we can place the particles. We can control the spacing between particles. We can control how big the particles are, how well they are packed. That’s the science that we do.

Mia Lobel: Hinestroza says working with nanoparticles is like having control over every single person in a football stadium.

Juan Hinestroza: I can program a molecule to go specifically to seat 117 in the north terrace and it will go exactly there, nowhere else.

Mia Lobel: This control is the key to making fibers smart, to make them do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, like protect us from bacteria or fend off dirt, oil, and water, or even change color on demand.

Juan Hinestroza: My dream is to have only one set of clothing that will serve all purposes. Because you can have the same T-shirt that is red for the football game—in case of Cornell—and then I pass an electric field and it becomes black, so I can go to a party. And then somebody in the party throws wine at me, it will not get dirty. I can use the same shirt and change the color to white and go running and it will not smell because I can control the bacteria that can control the smell from the sweat. And if it’s too hot, the fabric will expand or contract so I don’t have to wear a jacket. It would work like a second skin.

Mia Lobel: A second skin that you never have to wash, that never fades, and that looks and feels good too.

Juan Hinestroza: It will bend like cotton. It will feel like cotton. It’ll provide the comfort of cotton because it’s 99.9999 percent cotton.

Mia Lobel: The only difference between regular cotton clothing and the clothing of the future, says Hinestroza, is a 5-nanometer layer on the surface of the fabric. The contents of that microscopic layer will depend on what you want the clothing to do.

Juan Hinestroza: For example, if we want something that will be flexible and comfortable, we work with cotton cellulose. If we want something that will be able to decompose a gas or act as a catalytic converter, to be able to transform one substance into another, we work with ruthenium or palladium. So it depends on the ultimate function. We can tailor the chemistries to achieve that functionality by changing the material.

Mia Lobel: The applications for this kind of technology are practically limitless. Hinestroza is now working to create interactive camouflage for the military—tents that will turn brown in the desert and green in the jungle, fatigues that will retain heat when it’s cold, breathe easily when it’s hot, that will deliver medicine to the wounded and stay eternally clean. Hinestroza says it’s this relationship between form and function that will drive the future of fabrics.

Juan Hinestroza: The synergies between design and fiber science are incredible. It opens new avenues, so your clothing not only will look good on you but also will make you feel better.

Mia Lobel: These advancements are not so far off. Hinestroza’s students have already designed a dress that can charge a cellphone and running gear that traps greenhouse gases for easier breathing while you exercise. By 2030, you may be shopping in the smart section of a department store. I’m Mia Lobel.

Susan Hassler: About that T-shirt that keeps you from getting sick? It can be done. It would be cotton-based with antimicrobial, silver-based nanoparticles. At current rates it would cost about [US] $1500 for a men’s large, but I’m thinking that’s going to come down by the year 2030.

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