Old dog, new tricks: Bringing cotton into the polymer age

It’s a crop that evokes everything from Q-tips to fashion to bunny rabbits: cotton. But it’s history is far older than many may realize. Anthropologists believe it was cultivated and spun in the Indus River Valley in what is now Pakistan as early as 3,000 BC, according to Cotton.org. From then until now, the fibrous plant has served as an abundant, versatile and comfortable option for clothing, accessories and various other manmade objects.

“Cotton’s applications have just grown tremendously.”

But the white fluffy substance is not nearly as simple as some would begin to believe. As a material, it has unique properties, and researchers at Cornell University are now using the 5,000-year-old crop alongside some of the most advanced technology of today. With the help of specialized polymers, cotton’s applications have just grown tremendously. First we’ll explore the Cornell research more in depth, and then we’ll take a look at the current state of clothing and technology as a whole.

Better than spinning cotton into gold
At Cornell University’s Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory, professor Juan Hinestroza and his students are using cotton as a tabula rasa – but these aren’t fashion designers, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the group is coming up with innovative ways to couple cotton fibers with conductive and semi-conductive polymers to provide a stylish and highly functional material.

“Cotton is one of the most fascinating – and misunderstood materials,” Hinestroza told the Cornell publication. “Creating transistors and other components using cotton fibers brings a new perspective to the seamless integration of electronics and textiles, enabling the creation of unique wearable electronic devices.”

By coating cotton fibers with gold nanoparticles and incoporating those charge-holding polymers, the team could open up a range of uses without tempering cotton’s inherent flexibility. These included electronic-based functionality but were certainly not limited to that. Here are a few of the concepts the students developed:

  • A conductive dress trimmed in thin, lightweight solar panels, featuring a USB cable tucked into the waist, allowing the wearer to charge devices with renewable energy
  • A hooded bodysuit with organic framework molecules (MOFs) containing insecticide, capable of warding off malarial mosquitoes
  • A mask and hood that can selectively trap toxic gases using other specific MOFs
  • Other potential uses include fabrics that can monitor brain signals, analyze sweat, breathing or heart rate, and change temperature

MOFs are clusters of crystalline molecules that can be altered to act as cages the exact same size as the molecules they’re designed to capture.

“We wanted to harness the power of these molecules to absorb gases and incorporate these MOFs into fibers,” Hinestroza explained, “which allows us to make very efficient filtration systems.”

In these ways, the Cornell group wasn’t using cotton as a template upon which to add functionality – they were able to alter the behavior of cotton fiber at the nanolevel. In essence, they changed the way cotton behaved without losing the properties that make it so desirable: Flexibility, lightweight, the ability to be woven or knitted, and comfort.

But don’t think this team has lost sight of that other essential characteristic – style. Synthesized nanoparticles also create colors on the white cotton backdrop without the use of dyes. After all, half of looking good is feeling good, but the other half is looking good.

There's massive potential hidden in these cotton bolls.
There’s massive potential hidden in these cotton bolls.

Polymers, nanotech, clothing – oh my!
As it turns out, science has been messing with your wardrobe for awhile now. But trust us – that’s a good thing.

At the University of Central Florida, Debashis Chanda and his students have been developing a process by which light bends and a material’s color can instantly change, according to Geek.com. Their inspiration comes from the natural world – octopuses, chameleons and squid have the ability to change color to match their surroundings.

“All manmade displays – LCD, LED, CRT – are rigid, brittle and bulky,” Chanda explained in Nature Communications. “But you look at an octopus, [it] can create color on the skin itself covering a complex body contour, and it’s stretchable and flexible.”

Elsewhere, a University of California at San Diego project aimed at providing clothing with controllable temperature for increased comfort and lower energy bills. The goal is to provide flexible, lightweight fabrics with thermoelectric properties and specialized polymers that get thinner in the heat and thicker in the cold. In this way, the same shirt might be a heavy sweater in the winter and then a breezy top in the summer.

Once again, the team, led by distinguished professor of nanoengineering Joseph Wang, is still fashion-forward. The team says it wants its materials to look like the clothes people wear every day.

It’s difficult to imagine our clothes doing anything but keeping us covered and looking our best. But the world’s brightest minds can see through these garments – though not literally, thankfully. They realize if they can alter items we use everyday to take on new roles, they could change the way we live and begin to solve some of the world’s problems.

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