Nanotech Fabrics Now Machine Washable


by Tim Moran

People have been cleaning their clothes in washing machines for 100 years, give or take. It's a simple process, really, and at the core it has not changed much in all that time. Wikipedia explains: "To clean clothing it is necessary to rub and flex the cloth to break apart solids and help the soap penetrate."

This has worked just fine for normal clothing -- dumb clothing, if you will. But it wreaks havoc with smart clothing, or clothes made from smart fabric. The technology here is not simple. It involves a "'forest' of multiwalled carbon nanotubes" that create an "exquisitely fine web" held together by "intramolecular van der Waals forces." After some intricate processing, nanotechnologists can create a sheet containing a web of nanotubes that can be twisted into something like yarn. Garment makers are able to then introduce conducting "novel materials" into textiles made from these nanotube webs to create, say, motion-detecting pants, or smart running shoes, or a networked jacket.

All of this has been possible for a while, but there was a major hurdle: These conducting fabrics couldn't survive the simple wash cycle. Until now, according to Ray Baughman, of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas, in Dallas. He and his team believe that they have figured out how to manufacture fabrics containing the "guest materials" necessary to make these conducting fabrics impervious to a run through the old washing machine.

Baugham and his team ran tests in a Maytag washing machine at the standard 40 °C washing temperatures, as well as in a three-hour soak at 80 °C, and in neither case did they find guest materials to have been depleted. They plan more tests, according to the story, to see if there are other "physical stresses" associated with clothes washing that could affect particle retention and ruin the smart fabric.

In the end, this goes way beyond clothes. Nanotechnologists see applications for such smart yarn in "linear motors, batteries, supercapacitors and hydrogen storage systems." But nothing good can come of any of this if it all comes out in the wash. What's more, nobody likes to wear a soiled networked shirt.