Week 5: Nanotechnology and the Manipulation of Materials

A dress and a jacket designed with nanoparticles that contain antibacterial and air-purifying qualities

Even though nanotechnology and materials science were listed under separate headings in the Wilson text, artists and engineers have demonstrated that the two fields go together hand-in-hand. Nanotechnology is “the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, or supramolecular scale”. Materials science is the research that focuses on the characteristics of physical materials and the development of new ones (Wilson 215). By combining the two fields, new materials can be designed through the insertion of specific nanoparticles and the possibilities for innovation are seemingly endless.

Juan Hinestroza and Hong Dong – materials scientists

The Wilson weblinks led me to the collaboration between fashion design student Olivia Ong and two fiber scientists named Juan Hinestroza and and Hong Dong. Ong designed the jacket and dress pictured above for the Cornell Design League fashion show as part of her line “Glitterati“. Hinestroza and Dong collaborated with Ong by synthesizing silver and palladium nanoparticles in their lab and then dipping Ong’s fabric into the particles. The dress is coated in the silver nanoparticles which contain antibacterial properties. Not only does this mean the dress hardly ever needs to be washed, but it may also protect the wearer from germs and bacteria, thus preventing illness. The jacket is dipped in the palladium nanoparticles which have the ability to purify air. This jacket could be used by those with allergies or those living in polluted cities to protect their lungs and health. An additional feature of Ong’s designs are the fact that the colors were achieved due to the nanoparticles, not due to pigments. Hinestroza explained that this means the clothing will never fade in color, no matter how many times it is washed.

Artwork from the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies website
Artwork depicting nanoparticles from the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies website

Despite being extremely functional, these designs are nowhere near ready for the consumer market because of their cost— one square yard of nano-treated cottons costs $10,000. However, there is a branch of our government that is notorious for their reckless spending of tax-payer dollars: the military. The military is currently working on research identical to Ong’s design: they are experimenting with dipping military uniforms and gear into metal nanoparticles for their beneficial properties. The Institute for Soldier Technologies is a lab at MIT that researches how nanoparticles can be implemented in military gear to protect soldiers from blasts, detect hazardous substances, apply medicine and other medical care, allow for advanced communication between soldiers, and much, much more. For example, they’re trying to design clothing that if a soldier were to break a bone in the field, the material could stiffen to act like a splint until a cast could be applied.

There are several issues raised by this research. Who will have access to these beneficial materials? Currently it’s the military and well-funded labs. What if bacteria gains resistance to these nanometals? Will products have to be labeled as “coated in nanosilver” if the use becomes widespread? There is an ongoing battle to get GMO foods labeled and I foresee that there will be a battle with nano-alteration labeling as well. Finally, what are the health risks? We all know that we have “good” bacteria in our bodies. How will the introduction of antibacterial metals into our clothing and everyday lives impact that balance? I can’t decide if I would want one of Ong’s jackets or not. Would you?

-Rebecca Fisher


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