Keeping it clean -- Natick's self-cleaning fabric tech goes commericial
NATICK, Mass. (Sept. 17, 2014) -- Quoc Truong, a physical scientist at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, is making sure that it all comes out before the wash.
Truong provided technical guidance and direction to NSRDEC's industry partner, Luna Innovations, Inc., to successfully develop a durable, "omniphobic" coating used to produce self-cleaning fabrics. The technology, which was developed for use in Soldier clothing, has now made its way to the commercial market.
The coating greatly reduces how often Soldiers need to clean their clothes and enhances chem-bio protection. The omniphobic-coated fabric significantly lowers dirt and dust attraction, and repels water, oil and many liquid chemicals.
"It's omniphobic. That means it hates everything," Truong said.
Truong's technical guidance and leadership were provided to Luna's scientists and engineers through close communications with Luna principle investigator Bryan Koene. Truong's oversight continued through various stages of lab-bench testing and evaluation, ensuring that the optimized, omniphobic-coating formulations were compatible for use with various Army fabrics.
"Care was taken to also ensure minimal impact to Army fabrics' original physical properties and performances, such as comfort, while providing added repellency to water, oil and toxic chemicals," said Truong.
The self-cleaning clothing then underwent field testing to assess field durability, performance and user acceptance.
"We tested it, and the Soldiers really liked it," said Truong. "The treated fabric also has an anti-microbial additive. It slows microbe growth that causes odors. Some Soldiers had asked to keep their uniforms after the field tests. However, it was essential to collect these field-tested uniforms for a post-field-test evaluation to assess their liquid-shedding performance and durability."
The omniphobic coating's predecessor, Quarpel, is a durable, water-repellent coating that has been used for the past 40 years. Compared with Quarpel, the new coating is more repellent to oil and toxic chemicals. It is also "greener" than its predecessor.
"What we developed with our industry partner, Luna, is based on a C6 chemistry," said Truong. "It contains shorter, six-carbon molecular side chains containing fluorine atoms as compared to its predecessor having longer, eight-carbon chains, and C6 chemistry is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be environmentally friendly."
Even greener versions without fluorine are planned for the future.
UltraTech International, Inc., has been working with NSRDEC partner Luna Innovations to market the omniphobic coating, and it has made this material available commercially under the name of Ultra-Ever ShieldTM. So far, UltraTech has 150 potential business leads for the product. The technology is being applied to everything from outdoor wear to diapers. One country is even interested in using this self-cleaning coating to make bank notes more water- and stain-resistant.
"It would give new meaning to 'laundering' money," said Mark Shaw, chief executive officer, UltraTech International.
In an unusual sequence of events, the technology is making its way to the commercial market before becoming widely available to Soldiers.
"This new coating became commercialized before the Army has adopted it to replace its older Quarpel coating, but we are working on that," said Truong.
Additional military uses are also already in the works. Truong said that right now the coating is for textiles, but NSRDEC is working with a team of academic and industry partners to develop super-omniphobic coatings. The next generation of self-cleaning technology could be used on leather boots and gloves. Down the road, the self-cleaning technology may be possibly applied to flexible/hard surfaces, such as goggles, visors, shelters, and marine structures such as ship hulls.
"We've just scratched the surface, as far as applications go," Truong said.
Truong has been working on leading-edge technologies and the development of advanced, innovative materials and textiles for decades. He has personal reasons for his dedication to his work for the Soldier.
"When I came here (from Vietnam), I was only 15," said Truong. "The American government and people were so helpful and so welcoming to our family. As a result, my eight brothers and sisters are now productive citizens. We will forever remember the kindness of our American friends.
"When I was a junior at UMass Lowell, I saved a help-wanted ad, and it was for a chemist at Natick. I thought, 'I want to work for the Army to pay back the government for all the wonderful things it did for my family.' When I graduated, I was hired by Natick. I feel really fortunate that I have this job with the opportunity and the freedom to explore new ideas. Some ideas may seem crazy, but they can be done."
The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.