Electrospinning Form with Function: Fiber Scientists Are Engineering Clothing to Protect Farmworkers, First Responders, and Military Personnel. They Are Even Producing Nanofibers That Can Detect and Degrade Indoor Pollutants to Safeguard Us All

By Ulrich, Clare | Human Ecology, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Electrospinning Form with Function: Fiber Scientists Are Engineering Clothing to Protect Farmworkers, First Responders, and Military Personnel. They Are Even Producing Nanofibers That Can Detect and Degrade Indoor Pollutants to Safeguard Us All


Ulrich, Clare, Human Ecology


A couple of decades ago, if someone complimented your clothing as "smart," you'd be considered fashionable. Today, "smart" and "tailored" take on entirely different meanings.

Kay Obendorf, professor of fiber science & apparel design, is partly responsible for these semantic changes. She uses electron microscopy and spectroscopy to analyze the surface chemistry of fibers she's engineering into clothing that offers protection against chemical and biological hazards. Some of the fibers are tailored to detect specific environmental hazards, and some may be smart enough to decontaminate themselves.

Protecting Agricultural Workers

Obendorf's interest in protective clothing coincided with her concern about pesticide exposure among agricultural workers, who number about 1.3 billion worldwide, including 3.3. million people in the United States. Agriculture is ranked as one of the three most hazardous industries in both developing and industrialized countries. According to the Pan American Health Organization, a regional office of the World Health Organization, an estimated 3 percent of exposed agricultural workers suffer from an episode of acute pesticide poisoning every year. That could mean as many as 39 million people. When it doesn't kill, pesticide poisoning can produce irreversible tissue damage; chronic respiratory, gastrointestinal, allergic, and neurological symptoms; damage to the immune system; reproductive disorders; cancer; and much more--all of which are preventable.

"More than 900 pesticides were actively registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005," says Obendorf. "These are sold in the form of 19,350 products or formulations."

In addition to the challenges presented by that variety of hazardous chemicals, Obendorf and her research team face particular obstacles in designing protective clothing for agricultural workers who work outdoors, often in hot, humid conditions. They need comfortable clothing that offers breathability. What this means in terms of fabric construction, Obendorf explains, is that the structure of the fabric needs to have open spaces, or pores, to facilitate air flow. But those same spaces let contaminants penetrate through the fabric.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"One of the first things we did was try to find inexpensive ways that agriculture workers could increase protection," Obendorf says. "That starts with the selection of the textile. Here you get into factors like the weight of the fabric, the closeness of the weave, and how the textile absorbs the pesticide. Then we looked at how the pesticide on the contaminated textile gets transferred to the skin and how much of it actually goes through the skin."

Obendorf found a promising avenue of investigation in the microporous (small pore size between 0.01 to 1.5 micrometers in diameter) quality of nonwovens, textiles that are made from webs of fibers rather than a weave.

Safeguarding First Responders, Military

Clothing made of monolithic materials is currently being used to protect emergency responders or military personnel, who are at high risk of exposure to extremely hazardous gases and chemicals, but these nonporous materials offer no breath-ability. To achieve comfort, these materials are often used in a suit that combines a respirator, an air system, and a cooling vest. For first responders and military personnel who risk exposure to less-toxic materials and who require higher agility and endurance, protective clothing-made of microporous membranes can be considered. With this goal in mind, Obendorf's team launched an exploration of a family of microporous membranes made of polymers other than fluorocarbon.

"We took another hard look at the features that would give a material both comfort and protection," Obendorf recounts. "It really comes back to pore size. Pore sizes smaller than can be attained by conventional nonwoven and woven textiles are necessary to provide the level of chemical and biological protection required for first responders, medical personnel, and chemical workers. …

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Electrospinning Form with Function: Fiber Scientists Are Engineering Clothing to Protect Farmworkers, First Responders, and Military Personnel. They Are Even Producing Nanofibers That Can Detect and Degrade Indoor Pollutants to Safeguard Us All
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