Part 1

Health and Safety

Understanding impacts in health, the environment, and the marketplace

Textile Applications

High-Tech Clothing

Global cost pressures have forced most clothing manufacturers to shift production to low-cost countries, primarily in Asia. For Western companies to compete, they must produce high-tech clothes with many additional benefits for users. Nanomaterials are already being employed in creating wind-proof and water-proof clothing. Nanofibers have been introduced into many dress clothes to make them stain-repellant and wrinkle free while still allowing them to be easily cleaned. There is speculation that these advances will lead to clothing that will be self-laundering and permanently anti-static.45 Finally, nanotechnology is seen as the enabling technology for "smart clothes:"clothes with embedded electronics that can monitor the wearer's health, deliver drugs at specific times of the day, and repair tears and holes in the fabric.46

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies' Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory, an extensive list of consumer products containing nanomaterials, lists 43 products related to clothing, including:

Sunscreen in Clothing

Nanoparticles are also being tested for their abilities to provide protection from UV light. Traditional sunscreens use a chemical formula that has poor long-term stability. Nanoparticle sunscreens, with particles such as titanium dioxide, are equally as effective as the chemical formulas, but have greater long-term performance and don't have the characteristic "whitening" effect.48

In addition to making more desireable sunscreen, nanoparticles are also enabling the creation of clothing that acts as sunscreen. This is particularly finding applications in bathing suits and other similar products.49

Military Clothing

Nanomaterials are being developed for use in next generation battle clothing for America's armed forces. Researchers at MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies are currently developing nanomaterials that can absorb blast waves. Other projects still in development are materials that detect chemical and biological agents being used on the battlefield and materials that offer medical support to soldiers, such as forming a splint for a broken bone.50

One note of caution, however, is that these developments in military applications of nanotechnology will be prevented from participating in the normal peer review process because of concerns of secrecy. This could lead to the development of products that, under more open circumstances, would provoke a large public backlash.51 This note of caution is also shared with research by private firms, described later in Controlling Research: Differences in Public and Private Funding.

Another note of caution concerns the possibility of a new arms race. If nanomaterials prove to be extremely effective on the battlefield, giving one side a sharp advantage, other countries will likely seek to duplicate these products to level the playing field. The current framework of biological, chemical, and nuclear arms control treaties may not be enough to keep this arms race from spiraling out of control.52

© 2006—Peter Bird, Clarkson University

This work is part of a larger project, an Introduction to Nanomaterials Science and Engineering—