Self-Healing Textiles! Say Goodbye To Torn Jeans

Yes, those torn jeans can at last repair themselves! Too bad, fashionable people, you're going to join the ranks of the properly clothed, thanks to advances made by researchers at Penn State.

"Fashion designers use natural fibers made of proteins like wool or silk that are expensive and they are not self-healing," said Melik C. 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."

The procedure is simple. The material to be coated is dipped in a series of liquids to create layers of material to form a self-healing, polyelectrolyte layer-by-layer coating.

This coating is deposited "under ambient conditions in safe solvents, such as water, at low cost using simple equipment amenable to scale-up," the researchers report online in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Polyelectrolyte coatings are made up of positively and negatively charged polymers, in this case polymers like those in squid ring teeth proteins.

"We currently dip the whole garment to create the advanced material," said Demirel, who is also a member of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. "But we could do the threads first, before manufacturing if we wanted to."

During the layering, enzymes can be incorporated into the coating. The researchers used urease -- the enzyme that breaks urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide -- but in commercial use, the coating would be tailored with enzymes matched to the chemical being targeted.

"If you need to use enzymes for biological or chemical effects, you can have an encapsulated enzyme with self-healing properties degrade the toxin before it reaches the skin," said Demirel.

Many toxic substances can be absorbed through the skin. Organophosphates, for example, which are used as herbicides and insecticides are absorbed through the skin and can be lethal. Some of these chemicals have also been used as nerve agents. A garment coated with a self-healing film containing an organophosphate hydrolase, an enzyme that breaks down the toxic material, could limit exposure. The squid ring teeth polymer is self-healing in the presence of water, so laundering would repair micro and macro defects in the coating, making the garments rewearable and reusable.

"The coatings are thin, less than a micron, so they wouldn't be noticed in everyday wear," said Demirel. "Even thin, they increase the overall strength of the material."

Science fiction writers have this advance already in hand, thank you very much. In his 1970 short story Say Goodby to the Wind, the incomparable JG Ballard describes bio-fabric:

...Clothes are no longer made from dead fibers of fixed color and texture [see inert-wear] that can approximate only crudely to the vagrant human figure, but from living tissues that adapt themselves to the contours and personality of the wearer. Other advantages are the continued growth of the materials, fed by the body odours and perspriration of the wearer, the sweet liqueurs distilled from her own pores, and the constant renewal of the fibers, repairing any faults or ladders and eliminating the need for washing.
(Read much more about the Ballardian bio-fabric )

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