Researchers develop smart fabric to detect toxins
Chemistry professor Katherine Mirica and Dartmouth former postdoctoral fellow and senior scientist at technology startup C2Sense Merry Smith have developed a conductive smart fabric capable of detecting and protecting users from toxic gases. The innovation, named “Self-Organized Framework on Textiles,” improves on a previous sensor technology-related project that Mirica and Smith previously collaborated on, Mirica said. C2Sense is a startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that develops gas sensors.
Smith said the she worked with Mirica during her two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the College. She initially focused on organic frameworks at the College, and Mirica worked closely with conductive nanomaterials. Smith later narrowed her interest to conductive frameworks and began working with Mirica on researching framework crystals. The scientific climate and emphasis on wearable technology led Smith and Mirica to channel their work into developing a sensory material that could someday be worn be being incorporated into clothing and other wearable items, Smith said.
Mirica said she and Smith collaborated on developing sensors for toxic gaseous molecules that also served essential biological functions.
“[We] put functional materials onto fabric to actually enable technology that improved the available methods of detection of these molecules,” Mirica added.
After growing metal-organic frameworks and combining them with electrodes to make devices, Smith said she and Mirica “discovered that [they] could make conductive material that had the capacity to sense and differentiate and effectively absorb gases.”
Smith said the “most promising application” of SOFT would be in places that require constant filtration and/or detection of toxic gases such as gas masks used for industrial purposes or in the military. She added that she imagines a modern gas mask incorporated with SOFT that connects wirelessly to a mobile device, which will be able to tell users what gases they are being exposed to and simultaneously filter them out at a certain rate.
“It would be very applicable to our servicemen and women,” she said.
SOFT became more effective in its functions because Smith and Mirica combined two porous platforms, basic cotton and metal-organic framework, according to Mirica. The combination of the two porous materials enables the cotton to become a toxic gas sensor while the metal-organic framework absorbs the toxic gas. The use of two platforms instead of one was a key difference between this project and their previous one, she added. The results of their recent project were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Mirica said she and Smith are still researching ways to fully incorporate SOFT into wearable items. She added that they are currently working with textile swatches and seeing how those can be integrated onto a larger item of clothing, like a patch on an article of clothing.
Their findings are an “exciting start,” because the research can guide them towards more findings on basic cotton and metal-organic framework platforms, according to Mirica. She said the team has already hired two interns from the Women in Science Project to help continue the research, which she says will be diverted into two main topics: fundamental science and practical use. Through this research, they will gain more insight into how the basic technology works while newer and different methods of employing the textile are developed, she said. WIPS was established in 1991 to provide female students at the College with opportunities to participate in programs related to science, mathematics and engineering.
Smith said she hopes the research could lead to new conversations about fabrics as a wearable technology and shift the paradigm in the world of nanotechnology.