Someday, chemically protective suits made of fabric coated in self-healing, thin films may prevent farmers from exposure to organophosphate pesticides, soldiers from chemical or biological attacks in the field and factory workers from accidental releases of toxic materials, according to a team of researchers.
"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 today (July 25) 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.