We want our clothes to make us look good, but can they make us smell good, too?
Maybe so, according to professors at Wilkes University who are hoping to design a process that turns an ordinary piece of clothing into a bacteria-killing blouse that senses body odor or an infectious disease-sensing uniform that detects the presence of a biological agent.
How? It’s all part of the brave new world of nanotechnology, a growing industry that many U.S. companies are hoping will revive their manufacturing capabilities and lead to job creation.
The ability to coat fabrics with nano-particles (or powders) allows for the creation of bio-functional coatings for applications such as anti-bacterial fabrics and bio-sensors that can do everything from warn you when you are in the presence of a biological attack to greatly improving fire retardant properties in all kinds of fabrics, to monitoring blood sugar in sweat, according to Wilkes engineering professor Ali Razavi.
Dr. Razavi and colleagues Dr. Don Mencer, associate professor of chemistry; Dr. Jeffery Alves, distinguished professor of free enterprise and entrepreneurship; Mr. John Janecek, assistant professor of engineering, received a $120,000 Keystone Innovation grant that will be matched by Wilkes, to design and market a 12 inch roll-to-roll machine capable of coating fabrics with nano-particles of various materials. The project is scheduled to be completed in 12 to 18 months.
Nano-powders are particles with a diameter of less than 1 micrometer or 1 millionth of a meter. A human hair is said to be about 50 micrometers wide. That means that these particles can not been seen with the naked eye because they are closer to the size of a virus.
The project doesn’t stop at the prototype stage – the grant requires that the product be brought to market by establishing a start-up business with the possible name of Nano-Smart Processing LLC Company. That entrepreneurial component also presents a unique opportunity for undergraduates in the Jay S. Sidhu School of Business and Leadership to become involved in marketing the business.
“Students will be involved in both the development and engineering of the product and in the commercialization,” said Alves. “Next year’s entrepreneurial students will be working to identify markets and competition.”
“This is another example of the power of collaboration between the Northeastern Pennsylvania Technology Institute and the region’s institutes of higher education,” said Dr. Tim Gilmour, president of Wilkes University. “We are excited about the possibilities of using the intellectual power of our university to actually jump start a regional industry.”
Several local companies expressed interest in the product through letters supporting the grant application. Representatives from Lockheed Martin, Cinram Manufacturing, and Fairchild Semiconductor, all expressed interest in the project.
“Having local support for the research and product gives us an extraordinary leg up in being successful,” Alves said. “As a region, however, our biggest problem is critical mass, which we don’t have.”
The University still has to work through issues of intellectual property rights, said Mencer, who speculated this could be the beginning of a new role for Wilkes -- helping improve the local economy through the research and development capabilities of its faculty.
“We have put our reputations on the line that we can take this all the way from research and development to large scale production to marketing the product,” Razavi said. “We want to establish nanofabrication in Northeastern Pennsylvania as a way of replacing many of the manufacturing companies that have gone out of business.”