At Juan Hinestroza’s lab at Cornell University, technology is embedded into everyday clothes. Smart dresses charge iPhones, and sweaters repel mosquitos.
His latest garment in development is just as innovative, and has a loftier goal — saving lives.The fabric is designed to alert firefighters and miners of toxic pollutants in their work environments.
Diego Alzate-Sanchez, a graduate student in Hinestroza’s lab, has developed cotton fabrics that change color when they detect methane or carbon monoxide.
Sanchez hails from Manizales, Colombia – an area known for its coffee plantations and volcanic activity. His work stemmed from a desire to make a flag that could sense gases emerging from the local volcano and change color, alerting people of a looming eruption.
Here’s how it works. Lab members inject copper into the cotton fibers. Once the copper is securely embedded, they can add a variety of molecules that will cling to the copper. These molecules contain a “molecular cage capable of trapping a specific gas,” Hinestroza said.
To trap methane gas, they add phenyl vinylene – a molecule that gives the cotton it’s neutral color. When methane enters the cage, it alters phenyl vinylene, causing the fabric to change color and alert the wearer.
Another ongoing project in Hinestroza’s lab is aimed at catching counterfeit cottons. Hinestroza has started using nanowires in his laboratory. “These wires grow like an anaconda around cotton fibers,” Hinestroza said. When a laser scans the nanowires, it reads like a barcode – calling people out on their imitation Izods and fake Fred Perrys.
“We like to make cotton do what it doesn’t want to do,” Hinestroza said.