Don’t put down your pizza to rush for cold water and soap — emerging fabric technology may make grease stains a thing of the past.
Researchers from Cornell University, working jointly on engineering and fabric design nanotechnology, have developed a new coating for clothes that makes them resistant to oil.
Even better, the new technology is made without fluorines, a chemical linked to cancer that breaks down into a greenhouse gas.
Emmanuel Giannelis, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering, teamed up with Jintu Fan, Chair of the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, to bring the fluorine-free, oleophobic — or oil-resistant — material to fruition.
They began by working with an apparel company that was seeking a wrinkle-resistant coating that could retain its breathability. After a promising start, the apparel company added another request.
“The company came back and said, ‘That is good and great — but can you do something similar with oleophobic coatings?’” recounted Giannelis.
The research team, aided by postdoctoral student Genggeng Qi, created a new polymer that takes current coating chemistry to a new level — it contains “a rough surface texture that creates little air pockets.” Liquids with a high surface tension, such as oils, are essentially repelled from the surface and do not stick.
The researchers compare the new coating technology to the nano-workings of the lotus leaf, a natural inspiration for teeny, tiny projects ever since a German researcher discovered what’s known as the “lotus effect.”
The Cornell researchers have tested their new coating with mineral oil and so far are highly satisfied with the results.
“We’ve found that even after 30 washings, it’s still durable, which is great,” said Jintu Fan, professor and chair of the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology. “Even if we can achieve [oleophobicity] that’s even close to fluorine-based [polymers], that would be a huge breakthrough.”
Recently, the research team, under the university’s Center for Technology Licensing, filed a provisional patent for the nanotechnology-based material. They have aspirations of seeing the coating on commercial apparel in the not-too-distant future, should their work continue to fine tune the process.
“I don’t want to declare complete victory,” said Giannelis. “But we believe we are the first group to show that non-fluorine-based chemistry opens up the possibility to create oleophobic coatings that are probably good enough to resist stains from vegetable oils, olive oil and other oils.”
The team also sees a future beyond clothing, too. Some scientists envision “self-cleaning cities” and “self-deodorizing and disinfectant surfaces” that never need require cleaning from human hands. With the fluorine-free approach, these and other applications may have taken a big step forward.
“For industrial applications … we’re not quite there yet,” said Giannelis. “But we believe that we’ve opened up an opportunity, and more work will get us there.”
Fan noted that the collaboration between the engineering and apparel departments holds much promise, particularly in the “$3 trillion a year” fashion industry.
“Collaboration with the engineering department is very interesting and fruitful,” said Fan. “They are very good and bring a lot of wonderful ideas.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.