Scientist Wants to Bring Nanotechnology to Garment District

By Jill Colvin on August 2, 2011 6:02pm 

Cornell University fiber science pioneer Juan Hinestroza wants to change the way we think about clothes.
Cornell University fiber science pioneer Juan Hinestroza wants to change the way we think about clothes.
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Courtesy of Cornell University

MIDTOWN — Imagine clothes that change color with the press of a button, charge your cell phone, clean the air, kill bacteria and repel stains so they never have to be washed again.

That’s the mission of Cornell University fiber science pioneer Juan Hinestroza, who’s leading the revolution to bring high-end function to high-end fashion in Manhattan.

Presenting his findings to a small group of reporters at Cornell’s ILR Conference Center in Midtown Tuesday, Hinestroza said that in less than a decade, he expects nanotechnology to be commonplace in the clothing industry.

While his lab is already comprised half of scientists and half fashion designers, Hinestroza said he enthusiastically supports Cornell's bid to build a new science campus in Manhattan, and hopes it would connect the work he’s doing with designers in the Garment District who might be able to incorporate his cutting-edge technology with their cutting-edge designs.

“I think it would make a major difference to work more with designers," he said.

Cornell has proposed building its new campus on Roosevelt Island, a short subway ride away from Midtown. The city is expected to announce the winning school in December.

Already, he said, scientists can do incredible things using tiny layers of particles just 20 nanometers thick —or 2,500 times smaller than the width of a strand of human hair.

“We believe that nanotechnology is another industrial revolution,” he said, describing the melding of textiles, one of the most ancient human arts, with the most cutting-edge technology.

Hinestroza shared one prototype of a face mask and athletic hoodie designed by students in his Ithaca Textiles Nanotechnology lab that uses “smart cotton” technology to trap carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases so runners can clean the air as they breathe it.

The same technology can be used to protect emergency responders and soldiers from toxic chemicals like mustard and nerve gas. His lab receives funding for its research from the Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross, among others, he said.

One of Hinestroza's students has designed a futuristic dress made from conductive cotton that can charge cell phones and iPods using solar power without ever needing a plug.

Other projects currently in the works include sweaters that can change color at the press of a button, by changing the molecular structure of the particles the sweater is made of. The same molecular technology would also allow scientists to create suits colored without dye so they never fade.

His students are also working on uniforms incapable of getting wet or stained, and thin, cotton T-shirts so insulating they can replace the most bulky winter coats.

Hinestroza is even working on a real-life invisibility cloak worthy of Harry Potter — as long as those looking are doing so with night-vision goggles. The cloak scrambles infrared waves to appear invisible to those wearing the goggles.

The scientists are also working on Invisible markers that can be used to identify materials that are often counterfeited, such as a real Prada purse, from a fake.

While most of the applications are still far from being ready for widespread consumption,  Hinestroza said that clothing with antibacterial properties is already being used by the US Army and that he expects it to become common in surgical gowns soon.

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