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Good Chemistry

On Dec. 10, IntertechPira's three-day "Smart and Intelligent Textiles" conference begins in Prague with an entire day dedicated to nanotextiles.

On Dec. 10, IntertechPira’s three-day “Smart and Intelligent Textiles” conference begins in Prague with an entire day dedicated to nanotextiles. “The most promising technologies being researched today are the ones that don’t alter the look or feel of the fabrics,” says designer Angel Chang, who will be a keynote speaker at the event. Traditional treatments not only fade with washing, but also change the way materials feel. This is where nanotextile technologies shine.

This story first appeared in the December 4, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At the moment, most of the available nanotextiles are made of fibers that have been chemically treated. The molecules in these chemicals have been arranged so that they bond with the fibers on a molecular level and give the fabric the desired performance capability without clogging the weave or changing its hand. Nano-Tex, founded in 1998, currently produces four main fabric treatments named simply by function in its 80 licensed mills.

But the nano game isn’t just for big corporations. Earlier this year, Cornell assistant professor Juan Hinestroza and his research staff developed a new method for creating nanotextiles. Hinestroza dipped positively charged cotton into a negatively charged silver nanoparticle solution, producing an antibacterial nanotextile. It sounds like a basic chemical method, but Hinestroza explains that his “self-assembly” procedure is quite different from current nanotextile treatments. “It’s very difficult to coat natural fibers because of their curvature and composition,” he explains. “This process, which we’ve used with polymers in the past, forces particles to find a thermodynamic equilibrium.” In short, opposites attract, and the particles fall into place. Hinestroza went on to place negatively charged palladium crystals onto positively charged cotton to create a nanofabric that effectively oxidizes smog.

Nanotechnology itself is nothing new. In 1987, Anchor Press published K. Eric Drexler’s book “Engines of Creation,” in which he warns of a “gray goo” made up of microscopic machines that could destroy the environment, and there’s serious discussion today about nanotoxicology. There are fears that man-made molecules, engineered to punch holes in cell membranes for drug delivery or to be stronger than steel, can destroy human cells, causing irritation or even severe illnesses. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, begun by the Clinton administration in 2000, is a federal research and development program coordinating research on the topic from 26 separate government agencies. “There’s a lot of research right now on cell toxicity for these fibers,” says Hinestroza. “The results, however, are inconclusive, and more study is definitely necessary.”

The direction nanotechnology can take fabrics available to the fashion industry is potentially extraordinary, but — possible health issues aside — this innovation-to-watch still isn’t quite ready to revolutionize the market. Cheaper nano finishes are tailored specifically to cotton at this point, which limits their usefulness for designers who work primarily with wools or silks. And Hinestroza’s innovative technique? It produces fabric at roughly $10,000 a square yard.