Say goodbye to the bulky, duckbilled respirators of yore. Gas masks of the future will be as thin as cloth, according to textile scientists at Cornell University. Senior apparel-design student Jennifer Keane worked with the school’s Textiles Nanotechnology Laboratory to create a fabric hood and mask that selectively traps noxious fumes and odors. Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, the high-tech ensemble uses clustered crystalline compounds known as metal organic framework (MOF) molecules to form nano-size “cages” for gases such as carbon monoxide.

Jennifer Keane, Cornell University, wearable technology, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, disaster relief, technical fabrics, fabric technology

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“The initial goal of attaching the MOFs to fibers was sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. We wanted to harness the power of these molecules to absorb gases and incorporate these MOFs into fibers, which allows us to make very efficient filtration systems,” says Juan P. Hinestroza, an assistant fiber-science professor at Cornell. The garments are designed to trap gases till saturation, but captured molecules can be released by using heat.

The garments are designed to trap gases till saturation, but captured molecules can be released by using heat.

The process wasn’t without its kinks, however. “These crystalline molecules are like a powder that cannot easily become part of cloth,” says Marcia Da Silva Pinto, a fiber-science postdoctoral associate who first created MOF fabrics in Hinestroza’s lab. After months of trying to attach the particles to the fiber, the researchers realized that they had to bring the fiber to the particle. “It was a real paradigm shift,” she adds.

Keane, Hinestroza, and Da Silva Pinto are now looking to coat larger surface areas, as well as scale the technology to nanofibers, both of which could have significant impact on military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and emergency responders. “This type of work would only be possible at a place like Cornell, where a fashion designer can interact easily with a chemist or a materials scientist,” Hinestroza says.

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