Stain-resistant pants are so ‘last week’; try the odor-free socks

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Oct. 3, 2003 – One of the hottest trends in the fashion industry today is invisible to the naked eye. Nanoscale enhancements to classic materials like cotton and novel nanoengineering of synthetic fibers are leading to the high-tech couture of tomorrow.

Last year, nano was the new black. Business casual clothes brought nano to the masses through hangtags emblazoned with terms most people haven’t seen since high school chemistry.

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Indeed, the catalog copy for Eddie Bauer’s Nano-Care chinos reveals that “because the wrinkle- and stain-resistance comes from changes at the molecular level, it doesn’t wash off, and the fabric feels as comfortable as you expect cotton to be.” Levi’s Dockers brand launched the Go Khaki with Stain Defender while Lee, Gap, Haggar and other clothiers kicked off their own similar lines of anti-stain, wrinkle-free, extra-durable and comfortable garments.

The benefits come courtesy of cotton or synthetic fibers engineered with whiskery molecules that repel oil and liquids or polymer “nets” that wick moisture away from the body.

At the center of the commercial nano-fabric industry is Nano-Tex LLC, a majority-owned unit of Burlington Industries. While Levi’s uses a DuPont Teflon coating — the stuff of nonstick cookware — in its cotton Stain Defender garments, other synthetic Dockers garments employ Nano-Tex products like Nano-Dry  and Nano-Touch. Lee, Gap and a half-dozen other firms also license Nano-Tex technology.

Nano-Tex’s next product is already on deck — Nano-Fresh contains molecular-scale sponges that soak up and neutralize stinky-odor-causing hydrocarbons and release them only when washed. It’s small tech, but it could be big business. Wilbur Ross recently made the winning $614 million bid for bankrupt Burlington Industries. He publicly stated that Nano-Tex is one of the diamonds he saw in the rough.

Nano-Tex and DuPont should expect fierce competition, though. Swiss-based Schoeller NanoSphere is one of several companies promoting its own “nano”-branded stain-repelling technology. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s government-backed Industrial Technology Research Institute is spending $300 million over the next six years to foster nanotechnology development in that country with a focus on transforming traditional industries like textiles. Nanoengineered textiles are also a thrust of the $1.5 billion nanotechnology component of the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Program for research in the European Union.

But wash, wear, and wipe duds are just the first swatches of nano-tech to make it onto garment racks.

DuPont Textiles & Interiors  and Outlast Technologies are rolling out Phase Change Materials (PCMs) that respond to your changing body temperature. The fabric coating consists of the materials encapsulated into microscopic spheres. As you body warms up, the PCM melts, drawing the heat away from you. Once you cool off, the PCM freezes again, in turn releasing its stored heat to keep you cozy. And on and on.

Even your socks can benefit from a nanotech upgrade. London-based JR Nanotech’s SoleFresh socks are peppered with silver nanoparticles. Silver’s natural antibacterial and antifungal properties mean that the socks combat infection, sores, and, yes, stinky feet. SoleFresh socks would go well with underwear sewn with Sensory Perception Technologies (SPT), a fabric developed by ICI and The Woolmark Co. The companies developed a process to bind tiny melanin capsules, bulging with perfumes or moisturizers, to textiles. As the capsules burst over time, the sweet smell, insect repellant or deodorant inside is released.

Scented skivvies may be on the horizon, but the most amazing wave of nanotech textiles is still in the R&D closet. And once they emerge, the newest nano-styles will almost certainly be modeled on the battlefield before they hit the runways. For instance, the Army’s rip-stop nylon is nothing compared to carbon nanotube composite fibers. In a Nature article published this past June, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and Trinity College Dublin described success with continuous spinning of carbon nanotube fibers. Seventeen times tougher than the Kevlar used for bulletproof vests, the fibers are twice as strong as steel wire of the same weight and length. According to chemist Ray Baughman, director of UTD’s NanoTech Institute, the fiber could be used to weave clothing that’s not only bulletproof but might also store electrical energy like a battery.

MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) is ground zero for warrior chic. Waterproof and germ-proof nanoparticle coatings for bulletproof vests already have been developed at the university. Also on the fabric front is dynamic armor that firms up at the sound of a bullet or transforms into an instant splint. The material is woven from hollow fibers filled with nanometer-scale magnetic particles. In the presence of a magnetic field generated by, say, a hand-held device, the beads line up, stiffening the fabric to 50 times its normal state. Even more sci-fi are ISN’s designs for “exomuscle” uniforms that would provide soldiers with super strength, and reflective camouflage suits woven from high-performance mirror fibers.

No word, though, on whether these next-generation fatigues are dry-clean only.


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