– Juan Hinestroza's clothes never get dirty, can repel toxic gases, change color and even charge your cell phone. And you may be finding them in your closet within the next five years.
The 41-year-old chemist directs a laboratory where they are combining fashion and functionality in ways that have never been seen before.
"It feels like cotton, it drapes like cotton, because it is cotton," Hinestroza, director of Cornell's Nanotechnology Laboratory in New York, said. "We like to manipulate fibers to do things that fibers don’t like to do. For example, to conduct electricity, to kill bacteria, to detect an explosive, to detect a drug, or to capture a gas."
The impact on emergency first responders, for instance, has the potential to be life changing. Imagine having firefighters run into burning buildings armed with surgical masks to protect themselves from toxic fumes. Soldiers, hazmat teams, and police officers that can go into chemical war zones sporting light weight cotton masks and clothing that break down the poison gases while letting in the oxygen.
The Department of Homeland security, and the Department of Defense have all expressed interest in the work, Hinestroza said.
"Instead of having to wear something that is very heavy and burdensome to move, this will give you the same level of protections with more comfort," he said.
Scientists are literally telling cotton what to do by changing the fibers at their smallest molecular level.
"The diameter of your hair is about 50,000 nanometers. We are working with things that are about 5 nanometers - so 2,000 times smaller than that." he said.
Changing Everyday Life
The smart cotton can save lives but they can also make everyday life easier.
The cotton can be used as a surgical mask to avoid certain toxic fumes from vehicle exhaust. The lab has designed prototypes that are a child's (and even adult's) dream: clothes that can't get dirty, can't fade, and never need to be ironed.
"I don’t like the concept of washing," he joked. "I like to have materials that can stand by themselves."
Scientists manipulate the nano-particles by putting them so close to each other that they can repel water and oil at the same time.
This type of technology is already seen in the military in which underwear and other clothes can go days and weeks without having to be washed because they repel and kill bacteria. But Hinestroza notes that with this technology they can possibly reach their ultimate goal of making clothes last forever.
The technology isn't just useful for lazy college kids, but its making its way already into high fashion. Take for example the solar dress, which they designed has the ability charge your smart phone while walking down the street with no extra weight included.
"There are no wires only simple stitches of cotton that is treated with nanoparticles that we developed," Hinestroza explained. "We developed technology to transmit electrons through cotton to make cotton conductive."
The dress has grabbed the attention of a few Hollywood celebrities (he wouldn't name names) who are offering $40 to 60,000 dollars for their very own of the electrifying dress.
Don't worry guys, Hinestroza, hasn't forgotten about you, either.
Utilizing similar electrified nano-particles, men and women can wear the exact same jacket and change its color on command.
"I have a blue jacket now and I go to a party tonight and I can change it to black and turn it red for a Cornell party later in the night," he said.
Nanotechnology, the study of manipulating things on a molecular level, is already used in some consumer items like scratch-resistant paint for Mercedes Benz vehicles and sturdy light-weight golf clubs, but scientists admit they are worried about long-term environmental and health affects.
"We know there are unbelievable benefits, but we know much less about the potential long-term risks," said Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor of Science Communications at the University of Wisconsin. "Using this technology with first responders and the military is critical, but the concerns are with things that people can buy in the store."
Scheufele says nanotechnology is the future of science and sooner rather than later both will be one in the same. But it's just a matter of making sure scientists understand the full affects of long-term exposure to chemicals they may use to alter everyday items.
The Man Behind the Cotton
Hinestroza was born in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, and moved to the United States when he was 25.
Hinestroza obtained a doctoral degree from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Tulane University and a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Universidad Industrial de Santander in Colombia.
"Science was my driving force and it is what kept me alive. I became addicted to knowledge in some ways," he explained. "I love this addiction because I like to know why things happen rather than just doing."