Friday, 30 May 2014

Clean Clothes

We were talking earlier in the week about smart fashion: that is, clothes that do more than keep you warm and flatter your shape. On the fringes of the industry, and in the labs of sports research, innovation is an everyday occurrence, and utility means more than just adding pockets or a hole to poke your headphones through. From companies like Studio XO who developed a dress for art-diva Lady Gaga that blew bubbles, to the visionaries at Biocouture that are brewing fabric, these are exciting times.
It's all about lateral thinking, about considering a problem and flipping it around. Take a simple chore like laundry. It's a necessary evil: washing our clothes rinses detergents into the water supply, and uses kilotons of energy. What if the act of washing our clothes could somehow help, rather than harm the environment?
A collaboration between Helen Storey MBE, a British artist, designer and head of Fashion Science at London College Of Fashion and Tony Ryan MBE, professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Sheffield has led to a fascinating notion: catalytic clothing. Simply put, it's a treatment added to laundry detergent that cleans the air around you of pollution.
Catalytic clothing applies the technology already at work in things like self-cleaning windows and building concrete, and applies it to fabric. Brace yourselves, I'm about to drop some science. The CatClo solution contains nanoparticles of titanium, thousands of times finer than the human hair. When light shines on it, it reacts, splitting oxygen to create free radicals that bleach out the volitile organic nasties that couse pollution. The titanium is deposited on your clothes with every wash, and the process is accelerated by movement. In other words, when you wear clothing treated with the CatClo solution, you become your own catalytic converter, scrubbing the air around you clean. If everyone in, say, Sheffield, was to wash their clothes with CatClo, they could remove three tonnes per day of of nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient in the pollution cocktail, from the atmosphere. Imagine that in smog-choked Beijing.
Big business is, curiously, yet to jump on the idea, despite the fact that it's a reasonably straightforward addition to currently available detergents. There are pitfalls, of course. For one thing, CatClo removes all volatile organic compounds from the air around it, including perfume. So long, Chanel No. 5.
However, public perception of the process is generally positive. All it takes is one forward thinking multinational to step on board, and CatClo could fly. Here's the thing: it doesn't need special clothing or products. But to work successfully, it does need as many people as possible to be using it.
This notion of collectiveness, of working together for the common good, may be anathema to corporate thinking, but it's vital in a world where our environment is changing rapidly, and not for the better. A product like catalytic clothing is just the kind of innovative, forward-thinking notion we need. A tiny step towards a cleaner world.

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