Self-cleaning fabrics could revolutionize the sport apparel industry. The same technology, created by scientists working for the U.S. Air Force, has already been used to create t-shirts and underwear that can be worn hygienically for weeks without washing.
The new technology attaches nanoparticles to clothing fibers using microwaves. Then, chemicals that can repel water, oil and bacteria are directly bound to the nanoparticles. These two elements combine to create a protective coating on the fibers of the material. This coating both kills bacteria, and forces liquids to bead and run off (see diagram above).
The U.S. military spent more than $20 million to develop the fabric, deriving from research originally intended to protect soldiers from biological attack.
Jeff Owens, one of the scientists who worked to develop the process, said "During Desert Storm, most casualties were from bacterial infections -not accidents or friendly fire. We treated underwear for soldiers who tested them for several weeks and found they remained hygienic. They also helped clear up some skin complaints."
Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson wrote specifically about nanotech fabrics that stayed clean; he referred to "fabricules" in his 1995 novel The Diamond Age:
...with a quick brush, John and Gwendolyn were able to transfer most of the dirt onto their white gloves. From there it went straight into the air. Most gentlemen's and ladies' gloves nowadays were constructed of infinitesimal fabricules that knew how to eject dirt...
British news organizations pointed out that an earlier reference to the general idea of clothes that never got dirty can be found in the 1951 film The Man in the White Suit. SF fans can console themselves with the fact that the lead role was played by Alec Guiness, who of course played Obiwan Kenobi in the original Star Wars films.