Ready for another blast to the past? Activated carbon cloth, originally developed in the 1980s, is now being studied for a whole slew of new applications. British researchers at the University of Abertay Dundee have discovered that the inexpensive material is incredibly proficient at filtering toxins, which it does by creating ultra-reactive chemicals known as hydroxyl radicals. The high-tech textile is already being used inside of chemical, biological, and radiological warfare (CBR) suits for the military, but it could soon make its way into hospitals, water-treatment facilities, and other places where chemicals or toxins need to be neutralized from the air or water.

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Developed 30 years ago at Porton Down military research facility in England, the cloth was designed to protect soldiers from chemical attacks. Since then, Abertay scientists, in partnership with carbon-textile manufacturer Carbon Filter Technology, have discovered that activated carbon can remove dangerous or unpleasant molecules, even at minuscule concentrations.

Simply put, the activated carbon cloth breaks pollutants down into less-harmful compounds.

The textile is composed of tiny pores that adsorb organic molecules through weak Van der Waals forces. By adding ozone to the process, the fabric becomes even more effective at catalyzing the conversion of unwanted content into smaller molecules—or even carbon dioxide and water. In other words, the activated carbon cloth breaks pollutants down into less-harmful compounds.

Researchers expect the material to benefit the medical, military and environmental fields in myriad ways. The flexible and economical fabric could be used as highly advanced wound dressing, aid air-filtration systems in hospitals, filter out drugs and toxins from drinking water, or maybe even clean up toxic spills. Not bad for an ’80s throwback.

+ Phenomenal Fabric: How Can a Cloth Clean Up Toxic Waste?

+ Abertay University