A major focus of IFAI Expo was the latest high-tech innovations in specialty fabrics.
The final frontier?
Fabricators in the aerospace market face a host of unearthly challenges. Jinny Ferl of ILC Dover shared some issues facing developers of fabrics for spacesuits and extraterrestrial habitats: They must protect against punctures, orbital debris, extreme temperatures, radiation and dust mitigation—the latter two being the areas that need the most improvement, according to Ferl. Habitats need to be reconfigurable, more reliable and reduced in mass and life-cycle costs. The self-healing concept drives current development.
Radiation shielding fabrics must protect astronauts from three types of particles: galactic cosmic radiation (ions), solar particle events (protons) and neutrons produced when the first two react with something else. Because they have no charge, neutrons are the hardest to stop, said Sheila Thibeault of NASA’s Langley Research Center. Emerging technology lies in developing new materials, such as boron-containing polymers. And, “weight is everything in space,” Thibeault noted. “Any way we can lighten is a big improvement.”
Don Schockey of SRI International passed around an astronaut’s glove that had returned from a recent mission with a cut on the thumb seam—most likely obtained during a spacewalk when the astronaut grabbed a handrail with a micrometeorite crater. Fortunately, the glove features three layers and the cut only penetrated the outer Vectran® layer. SRI is working on a redesign and looking for more robust materials with a tighter weave.
Today’s material choices …
IFAI’s technical services manager Juli Case presented a discussion of today’s hot fabrics and growing markets, outlining how concerns over skin cancer, the trend toward expanding living spaces outdoors and the focus on saving energy have increased interest in shade cloth. The Centers for Disease Control has published the booklet “Shade Planning for America’s Schools,” the American Academy of Dermatology’s Shade Structure Program awards grants for the purchase of permanent shade structures, and California recently passed a law requiring agricultural operations to provide shade to field workers. Case also mentioned a study in which shaded cows produced more milk, and another that showed that red shade cloth helps plants grow. Although not yet addressed by the building code, it is “a matter of time,” she said.
Other leading-edge materials: rubber-coated fabrics, which are highly abrasion resistant and withstand low temperatures; nonwovens, which are faster to create and lighter than wovens and may not require a finished edge; metallized fabrics, which offer thermal insulation and shielding from electromagnetic interference; composites, which can be rigid or flexible and are used in lighting and photovoltaic applications, as well as tents and shading; and ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), which is used where the look of glass is desired without the cost or weight of glass.
… tomorrow’s opportunities
Today’s fabrics began as tomorrow’s fabrics will: with imagination. Proving by example that meeting—and exceeding—the demands of a rapidly changing, technologically driven world is possible, Cheryl Gomes of QinetiQ explained the development of self-decontaminating fabric for biochemical defense. It must be launderable, breathable and, of course, cost effective. Current technology uses activated carbon, but carbon is heavy and hot to wear, Gomes said. Developers are looking at catalytic polymer substrates, focusing on enzymes, which can be stabilized with cyclodextrin (the active ingredient in Febreze odor-eliminating fabric spray). “We need to be able to combine technologies,” Gomes said.
Chip Laingen of Minnesota Wire described his company’s work on stretchy wire for the medical, telecommunications and defense arenas. But, he noted, the company is searching for a fabric partner to expand into commercial applications such as high-risk sports equipment and gear for hazardous conditions personnel.
Debra Aperfine of Chameleon Intl. told the story of her young daughter wanting her purple raincoat to turn pink in the rain. With that inspiration, Aperfine partnered with other business owners to develop ChroMyx, a flexible sheet material that changes color in thermal variations. The applications extend from novelty (i.e., toys) to medical, furniture and industrial uses. Chameleon’s latest development is creating a line with three chromatic states: neutral, too cold and too hot. The goal is to “embed technologies for new products,” Aperfine said.