Photo by Scubagirl85/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have developed a way for fabrics to repair themselves with just a little pressure and warm water. The secret lies in a biodegradable liquid, which can be applied to conventional textiles such as cotton, wool, and polyester as a multilayered coating. Derived from a mix of bacteria and yeast, the as-yet-unnamed liquid shares similarities with a protein found in squid tentacles, specifically the rings of sharp teeth that line their suction cups. “We currently dip the whole garment to create the advanced material,” Melik C. Demirel, the professor of engineering science and mechanics in charge of the project, said in a statement. “But we could do the threads first, before manufacturing if we wanted to.”


More intriguingly, the resulting fabric could also protect its wearer from chemical attacks or the effects of toxic spills.

During the layering process, enzymes that break down certain chemicals—for instance urease, which converts urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide—can be incorporated into the film.

For commercial purposes, the coating could be customized for specific targets, such as organophosphates, which are used as herbicides and insecticides but can be lethal if absorbed by the bloodstream through the skin.

“If you need to use enzymes for biological or chemical effects, you can have an encapsulated enzyme with self-healing properties degrade the toxin before it reaches the skin,” said Demirel, whose work has attracted the support of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research.

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Entire suits could be made from coated fabric to protect farmers from these pesticides, soldiers from chemical or biological agents, or factory workers from hazardous materials.

“The coatings are thin, less than a micron, so they wouldn’t be noticed in everyday wear,” Demirel said. “Even thin, they increase the overall strength of the material.”

Through tests over the past year, Demirel’s group found that the liquid didn’t change the character of the fabrics. Neither did it slough off in a washing machine.

Further experiments are still in the pipeline, but the team is hopeful that their invention could also make clothing more durable.

Discarded clothing is a major global problem,” he told CNN. “Maybe this is a way to improve the longevity of clothes we wear.”

+ Pennsylvania State University