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Composite fabric protects against biological, chemical threats

Swatches | December 1, 2021 | By:

Researchers have developed a versatile composite fabric that can deactivate both biological and chemical threats. A material that is effective against both classes of threats is rare. Photo: Northwestern University.

A research group at Northwestern University has created a versatile composite fabric that has the potential to deactivate both biological threats, such as novel coronaviruses, and chemical threats, like those used in chemical warfare.

The researchers said the global health crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and the use of chemical warfare agents highlight the need to develop efficient protective clothing to combat these new threats.

It is unusual to find a material that is effective against both types of threats. Metal organic frameworks, or MOFs, are the secret of the new technology, said Omar Farha, an MOF expert at Northwestern. Farha likened MOFs to “sophisticated bath sponges.” Holes are designed in the nano-sized materials to capture vapors, gases and other agents similar to how a sponge captures water.

The cavities of the MOFs consist of catalysts that have the potential to deactivate harmful bacteria, viruses and chemicals. The MOF material’s nanopores coated on the textile are broad enough to enable water and sweat to escape, so when used in a face mask, for example, the material functions both ways—it safeguards the user from virus entry and it protects people who come into contact with an infected mask wearer. 

Significantly, the new material can be reused, making it ideal for face masks and protective clothing. After exposure to a biological or chemical threat, a simple bleach treatment will restore the fabric to its original state.

Farha said the composite material is scalable, as it just needs fundamental textile processing equipment that is already widely used in the industry. 

Additionally, the scientists were able to understand the material’s active sites down to atomic level. This enables them and others to derive structure-property relationships that could pave the way for making other MOF-based composites.

The group’s research was reported in the September issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The study was financially supported by a National Science Foundation RAPID grant, the Army Research Office and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

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