What if you accidentally spill a chemical on your shirt, causing a hole, and miraculously, the shirt repairs itself when you throw it in the wash? It’s not just the stuff of science fiction. Known as self-healing textiles, fabrics are being developed that can repair themselves as well as neutralize chemicals dangerous to human health.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have developed a coating technology for conventional textiles. It works by simply immersing fabric in a series of liquids, creating what is known as a polyelectrolyte layer-by-layer coating, which is made up of positively and negatively charged polymers. In this case the polymers are inspired by squid ring teeth proteins, which can change from liquid to solid in the presence of water.
During this process, enzymes tailored to counter certain chemicals are incorporated into the coating. Some toxic substances, various herbicides and insecticides present a danger because they can be absorbed through the skin and can even be lethal. The enzymes counter biological or chemical effects by degrading the toxin before it reaches the skin.
And because, like squid ring teeth, the polymer can heal itself when water is introduced, laundering would repair micro and macro defects in the coating.
The coatings are less than a micron deep, so they are not noticed on the fabric. Currently the researchers are dipping whole garments in the coating, but expect that as the technology develops, threads could be coated prior to manufacturing.