We have all been there before. Enjoying a burger or French fries…and plop. A big blob of ketchup drips on your clothes. But thanks to Army physical scientist, Quoc Truong, you may not have to worry about your dry cleaning bill ever again!
Truong and his team have been working on “self-cleaning clothing” for the past five years at the U.S. Army Soldier Research, Development, & Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. Truong’s dream: clothing that won’t get dirty in the first place!
The U.S. Army has about a million soldiers including active duty, reservists and National Guard. Each soldier is issued five uniforms. With the constant wear and tear that uniforms undergo in the field - that's a lot of laundry!
Challenged by a general to invent a uniform that didn’t need cleaning, Truong examined the molecular level of the fabric and the substances that make it dirty. To make uniforms that actually resist a wide array of water- or oil-based substances, Truong and his team have been working on what he calls an “omniphobic coating.”
“We really wanted to make a coating that once you apply [it] onto fabric, will repel anything.”
Does It Work?
How well does this uniform fabric resist dirt? Much of the testing is done on machines that Truong and his co-workers have had to invent themselves. The tests reveal that everyday substances, like ketchup or chocolate sauce, tend to be repelled or slide off the uniform fabric. The coated uniform fabric can even resist tough substances like motor oil - which beads up on the fabric surface, instead of soaking through.
Truong has even figured out a solution for the smell that could come from clothes that don’t get laundered. By adding antimicrobial additives to the coating, stinky odors are no longer an issue.
Testing Self-Cleaning Fabric In the Field.
It’s one thing to test the uniform fabric in a lab, but for the U.S. Army, it’s all about performance in the field.
“On the battlefield, the soldiers don’t have field laundering equipment. In the event they get clothing dirty…they can just stand up and eventually the dirt will just fall off and the uniform is clean again,” says Truong.
Soldiers first tested the uniforms in 2011. Soon, the fabric will undergo even more rigorous testing in a field test in Fort Riley, Kansas. Truong and his team are working with Virginia-based Luna Innovations to refine and improve the self-cleaning fabric. One challenge is mud, especially when it is ground into the fabric itself.
When all the kinks have been worked out and testing is completed the possibilities are endless. It's not just the military that could be using self-cleaning clothes. Commercial manufacturers have been approached about using the omniphobic coating. So someday, both the military and the general public may not have to worry about cleaning clothes again.