Let It Rain! New Coatings Make Natural Fabrics Waterproof

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September 10, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: September 10 on

MIT-developed process could offer nontoxic alternative to environmentally harmful chemicals.

Fabrics that resist water are essential for everything from rainwear to military tents, but conventional water-repellent coatings have been shown to persist in the environment and accumulate in our bodies, and so are likely to be phased out for safety reasons. That leaves a big gap to be filled if researchers can find safe substitutes.

Now, a team at MIT has come up with a promising solution: a coating that not only adds water-repellency to natural fabrics such as cotton and silk, but is also more effective than the existing coatings. The new findings are described in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, in a paper by MIT professors Kripa Varanasi and Karen Gleason, former MIT postdoc Dan Soto, and two others.

“The challenge has been driven by the environmental regulators” because of the phaseout of the existing waterproofing chemicals, Varanasi explains. But it turns out his team’s alternative actually outperforms the conventional materials.

“Most fabrics that say ‘water-repellent’ are actually water-resistant,” says Varanasi, who is an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “If you’re standing out in the rain, eventually water will get through.” Ultimately, “the goal is to be repellent — to have the drops just bounce back.” The new coating comes closer to that goal, he says.

The process works on many different kinds of fabrics, Varanasi says, including cotton, nylon, and linen, and even on nonfabric materials such as paper, opening up a variety of potential applications. The system has been tested on different types of fabric, as well as on different weave patterns of those fabrics. “Many fabrics can benefit from this technology,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential here.”

The coated fabrics have been subjected to a barrage of tests in the lab, including a standard rain test used by industry. The materials have been bombarded not only with water but with various other liquids including coffee, ketchup, sodium hydroxide, and various acids and bases — and have repelled all of them well.

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