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Creating the future of textiles (part 4)

November 1st, 2010 / By: / Markets, Technical

Nanomaterials offer unlimited potential for creative application in specialty fabrics.

Part IV of a series by speakers at the Advanced Textiles Conference 2010. Part I covers developments in advanced textiles, Part II addresses developments in auxetic materials, and Part III discusses electrical conductive nanocoatings. Part V examines the push for sustainability.

What are the newest, most exciting or intriguing developments in the industry in advanced textiles?

My research focuses primarily on nanomaterials chemistry and developing new methods to make them, with the general goal of eliciting unique properties that derive from their nanoscale dimensions. Being involved in advanced textiles research is relatively new for me. I’ve recently been drawn to it by the potential to incorporate and use in textiles the nanomaterials that we are making—like semiconductor nanowires—to elicit a new range of material properties.

I think that there is tremendous opportunity here, with the potential to add to fabrics functions like energy harvesting and storage, optical and chemical sensing capabilities, and unique combinations of mechanical strength and toughness.

Who is driving new developments, the researchers or the market?

In the case of what we are doing, research is driving new developments. In a sense, we are in a situation of having a really interesting material with potentially useful properties in search of an application. For example, we have developed methods for making large quantities of silicon and germanium nanowires. The nanowires are crystalline, but instead of being brittle, they are mechanically very flexible. We have measured their mechanical properties and found that they are also very strong because of their nanostructured character.

The fibrous structure of the nanowires makes them amenable to create or introduce into textiles. Because the nanowires are made of semiconducting materials—silicon, for example, is the backbone of the electronics industry—they have the potential to impart into textiles in innovative ways a new combination of material properties (strength, mechanical flexibility) and new optical and electronic characteristics. We believe that there is a tremendous potential for new textiles and applications with these materials.

What is the market demanding and (if applicable) how is your research team responding to market demands?

There seems to be a market emerging for textiles with more capabilities. It’s my perception that some of this demand is in response to the fact that materials with new combinations of properties are now becoming available, such as the semiconductor nanowires that I mentioned. They’re a nanomaterial that is amenable to forming or incorporating into textiles and have some unique combinations of properties. They can meet the structural needs of a textile while imparting interesting functionality, like being able to harvest and convert solar energy to electrical power.

New synthetic methods are now making these materials available in larger quantities to allow for the study of their applicability. We’re currently in the middle of this line of research, coming up with ways to produce interesting materials in quantities that can meet the needs of the textiles market.

Are new technologies finding their applications and markets? If so, where is the most robust growth occurring, or likely to occur in the near future? If not, what’s holding up the implementation of new technologies?

In terms of nanomaterials in fabrics, there are some examples of commercially available fabrics. I’ve heard of a fabric product that has incorporated silver nanoparticles. There has been tremendous progress in making yarns of carbon nanotubes. These materials have been enabled by new manufacturing strategies for nanotubes and ways of weaving them together with a high throughput. However, in general, the integration of nanomaterials into textiles remains in its infancy. I see this as the result of two difficult issues: One, manufacturing methods that can produce enough of the desired material still remain to be developed; and two, the fundamental properties of the nanomaterials themselves—especially in the context of the textiles industry—remain largely unknown.

In the case of nanowires, many research groups around the world make and study them, but most often the focus is on electronic or optical applications that require relatively little material and are unaffected by small changes in structure, such as their length.

In textile applications, if the wires are too short or do not disperse in a particular solvent they simply will not work. Also, the kinds of properties that are important, such as durability, are not important to those other fields and are not studied. Another issue that requires further study is the toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials.

What new products or processes are being developed now that will have the most profound impact on the way in which end product manufacturers do business tomorrow?

There are many new products that could be developed using nanomaterials. I imagine there will be a lot of creative thinking about which products make commercial sense, but unique combinations of optical properties, like new kinds of camouflage, combinations of fabrics that enable solar energy harvesting and storage, flexible solar cell and battery materials, self-cleaning fabrics, and even fabrics that can harvest mechanical energy from motion using piezoelectric nanomaterials are all part of the new materials landscape.

Perhaps, textiles will have the capability to sense chemical or biological things in the environment, and will function like clothing or textiles for other applications. All of these potential applications require large-scale manufacturing of nanomaterials, which may be a future growth area for the textiles industry that could create new jobs as well as new products.

Brian Korgel, Ph.D., is professor of chemical engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering and Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas, Austin. He presented at the “The Future of Nantechnology on Advanced Textiles” symposium October 27, 2010 at the Advanced Textiles Conference 2010 in Orlando, Fla.

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