Imagine never having to patch or replace your jeans after an unfortunate tear. New research by scientists at Pennsylvania State University could make it so that you need never pull out the sewing needle again.
The process is surprisingly simple - by dipping clothing in a series of special liquid substances, researchers can create clothing that simply knits back together after a tear.
"For the first time we are making self-healing textiles," said Pennsylvania State’s Melik C. Demirel in a Penn News release.
While the scientists behind the self-healing clothing say that the process can be applied to threads before the cloth used to create garments is even woven, they have currently only applied the technique to pre-made items.
How does it work? The coating is called a polyelectrolyte coating, created from a yeast and bacteria mixture, and made up of both positively and negatively charged polymers similar to the ones in human hair and nail proteins, as well as the proteins found in squid teeth rings, according to Penn News.
Although researchers dipped entire clothing items into the liquid, it can also be spot applied as necessary. Find a tear in your clothing, according to CNN Money, and you can dribble a few drops of the liquid over the tear, add warm water, and then hold the tear together with your hands for a moment. The fabric should then start to heal itself.
The team behind the liquid say that using their discovery is easy and inexpensive, just requiring simple equipment and water.
"Fashion designers use natural fibers made of proteins like wool or silk that are expensive and they are not self-healing," said Dr. Demirel. "We were looking for a way to make fabrics self-healing using conventional textiles. So we came up with this coating technology."
While this discovery has obvious practical applications for everyday people, researchers envision it aiding soldiers, or even workers in dangerous professions. The coating can prevent dangerous chemicals or toxic substances from getting through the clothing of those who work with them, or help keep soldiers safe from chemical or biological attacks.
To achieve these enhanced protective effects, researchers say that they can easily incorporate enzymes into the clothing.
"If you need to use enzymes for biological or chemical effects,” Demirel told Penn News, “you can have an encapsulated enzyme with self-healing properties degrade the toxin before it reaches the skin.”
Clothing coated in the healing substance combined with an organophosphate hydrolase, for example, could keep the wearer safe from certain chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin, and have been used as nerve agents.
As an added bonus is that while the coating is so thin it isn’t noticable, it is durable enough that garments coated in the substance will heal as they are laundered.
"Discarded clothing is a major global problem," Demirel told CNN Money. "Maybe this is a way to improve the longevity of clothes we wear."
Increasingly, researchers and clothing manufacturers are marrying textiles and technology.
Earlier this year, Google and Levi Strauss announced their partnership on the Jacquard Project, a project intended to explore the possibility of combining clothing and technology to create wearable tech.
Toyota, too, has joined the wearable tech frenzy, announcing Project BLAID in March. The project, which helps visually impaired people navigate their environment through cameras and speakers embedded in a horseshoe shaped wearable that rests on a user’s shoulders.
“Project BLAID is one example of how Toyota is leading the way to the future of mobility, when getting around will be about more than just cars,” executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Toyota Motor North America, Simon Nagata, said in a press release. “We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstances, location or ability.”