Clothes that purify the air around them as they are worn could be the latest weapon in the fight to clear up pollution.
Scientists have teamed up with fashion designers to come up with a potentially revolutionary liquid laundry additive called ‘CatClo’ - catalytic clothing - which contains microscopic pollution-eating particles.
Items of clothing only need to be washed in the additive once, as the nanoparticles of titanium dioxide grip onto fabrics tightly. A nanoparticle is a particle with at least one dimension less than 100 nanometres - one nanometre is a billionth of a metre. When these particles in the clothes come into contact with nitrogen oxides in the air, they react with these pollutants and oxidise them in the fabric.
Nitrogen oxides treated in this way are completely odourless and colourless and pose no pollution hazard as they are removed harmlessly when the item of clothing is next washed, if they haven’t already been dissipated in sweat.
The additive itself is also completely harmless and the nanoparticles are unnoticeable from the wearer’s point of view.
The new additive is the result of collaboration between the University of Sheffield and London College of Fashion, with initial support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The research team is now in talks with a manufacturer of environmentally friendly cleaning products and it’s thought that the exciting technology could a commercial reality within two years, with costs as low as 10p per wash.
The scientists say that one person wearing clothes treated with CatClo would be able to remove around 5g of nitrogen oxides from the air in the course of an average day – roughly equivalent to the amount produced each day by the average family car.
Nitrogen oxides produced by road vehicle exhausts are a major source of ground-level air pollution in towns and cities, aggravating asthma and other respiratory diseases. Asthma currently affects one in 12 adults and one in 11 children in the UK. As well as the general benefits that would result from people using CatClo, those suffering from respiratory conditions could also, by wearing clothes treated with the additive, give themselves cleaner air to breathe as they move around.
Professor Tony Ryan OBE of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemistry, co-led the project working closely with Professor Helen Storey MBE from London College of Fashion. Prof Ryan said: “It’s the action of daylight on the nanoparticles that makes them function in this way. The development of the additive is just one of the advances we’re making in the field of photocatalytic materials – materials that, in the presence of light, catalyse chemical reactions. Through CatClo, we aim to turn clothes into a catalytic surface to purify air.
“If thousands of people in a typical town used the additive, the result would be a significant improvement in local air quality. This additive creates the potential for community action to deliver a real environmental benefit that could actually help to cut disease and save lives. In Sheffield, for instance, if everyone washed their clothes in the additive, there would be no pollution problem caused by nitrogen oxides at all.”
Prof Ryan added: “We’re now working closely with a manufacturer of environmentally friendly cleaning products to commercialise our laundry additive. We believe that using the additive in a final rinse with a full washing load could potentially cost as little as 10 pence – a small price to pay for the knowledge that you’re doing something tangible to tackle air pollution and increase the life expectancy of people with respiratory conditions. We’re confident there’s a really big market out there for this product.”
Professor Helen Storey said: “When science and culture work together in this way, it becomes possible to involve the intended end user in the early stages of the development of the technology. This in itself is still a relatively new concept.”
The research, including a catalytic clothing field of jeans, will be featured as part of the Manchester Science Festival running from October 27 to November 4. Its inventors say that CatClo works particularly well on denim and there are more jeans on the planet than people.
The new additive was initially developed as part of the 18-month ‘Extreme collaboration delivering solutions for a failing world’ initiative, which received £202,000 of EPSRC funding.
This summer, the capabilities of this ingenious additive were demonstrated at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on ‘WENDY’, a 14-metre high, spiky-armed experimental construction. The nylon fabric covering WENDY was sprayed with the additive and, over a 10-week period, removed nitrogen oxides from the air equivalent to the amount produced by around 260 cars.