Prof. Juan Hinestroza, fiber science and apparel design (FSAD), weds nanotechnology and fashion in his research. Many may deny that nanotechnology has anything to do with apparel.
Hinestroza, however, imagines infinitely many links between these two fields. He envisions a white interview blouse transforming into a snazzy fuchsia-colored camise on demand. And in case maintaining health is of more interest than aesthetic color changes, he has sees bacteria-killing duds warding off winter colds.
Smart clothes may be a reality in the near future, if researchers manage to reduce costs and address safety concerns.
Hinestroza is as diverse as his research. Born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, he discussed his experience of “thermal shock, cultural shock and language shock” upon arriving in America. He relates to students of all backgrounds, especially the underprivileged Hispanic children he works with in the Ithaca area. Hinestroza said his main passion is to “inspire and encourage Hispanics and African Americans to obtain degrees in science.” Hinestroza also picked up some Portuguese during his time in Brazil.
He discussed how Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the U.S. and that we should “tap into that wonderful resource of talent.”
Hinestroza’s textiles nanotechnology laboratory attracted multinational students and visiting scientists of all ages and departments, including chemical, electrical and biomedical engineering, material science and FSAD. Unlike most nanotechnology labs, females are the majority.
The lab headquarters are nestled within Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, home of the College of Human Ecology, and Langmuir Labs, but they collaborate with many centers on campus, using the most high-tech equipment available to analyze fibers. He collaborates with researchers in Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico and Korea.
“That’s the beauty of being in Cornell,” he explained. “I’m convinced that if I wake up in the morning with a very crazy idea, I will find an expert in Cornell in that field, and that expert will answer my phone call.”
Other exciting nano clothing offspring include “personal air purification systems,” where pollution gases are absorbed by nanoparticles coating the surface of a fabric. Both those who suffer from allergies and those living in polluted regions would benefit from wearable air filters. Nanotechnology works here because nanoparticles are roughly the same size as particulate materials in air. On the contrary, large, clunky molecules would capture far fewer tiny pollutants.
Hinestroza described how two types of particles are especially effective at capturing bacteria. “Silver and copper nanoparticles both kill bacteria very effectively,” he said. Researchers hope to develop suits to protect soldiers against chemical and biological weapons. The Department of Defense has expressed interest in his research and have offered funding.
In the medical field, this anti-bacterial technology could be applied to sheets in hospitals to minimize the spread of illnesses. The technology may provide gloves that deliver medicine directly through the skin.
When asked how he spends his time, “I spend 50 percent of my time in teaching, 50 percent in research, 50 percent in outreach, and 50 percent in my personal life,” he responded. “I love my job. It is not a chore because I enjoy it so much.”
He believes his research is very visible in the public sphere. “Textiles are everywhere, from socks, to toilet paper to newspaper, to paper you write on,” he explained. “Also your hair is a natural fiber.”
He also works with magnetic nanoparticles that can create invisible signatures that mints can inscribed on dollar bills to prevent counterfeit.
However promising his research may be, Hinestroza faces some technological and fiscal challenges. His team has not yet established methods to deposit particles with nanoscale precision over an irregular fiber. Additionally, anti-bacterial clothing would carve a gaping hole in nearly anyone’s wallet; each item receiving a dusting of nanoparticles costs $10,000. Researchers remain confident that these prices will fall.
The safety of the nanoparticles themselves remains a contested issue, since these tiny particles can enter the blood stream, leaving some scientists concerned. Nanoparticles like ionic silver may also be toxic for the environment.
“We need to know more,” Hinestroza said. “But we don’t want this lack of knowledge to facilitate panic. We must not stop the development of new things; we just need to invest more in knowledge.”
“Science and technology are cool,” he said. “All the cool things that we have today are because someone was working in a lab, from Nike shoes to glasses to clothes.”