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Clothes Can Now Self-Repair, Thanks to Liquid Inspired By Squid Teeth

A new polyelectrolyte coating can repair most existing fibers as well as neutralize toxic chemicals.
Image: Pennsylvania State Research Communications

Ripped clothes are common down here in South Texas brush country, whether it's because of the thorny acacia or the miles of barbed wire that insist on ripping something when you repair them. But soon, we may not have to worry about all that.

As shown in the video below, researchers at Pennsylvania State University recently developed a polyelectrolyte liquid solution made of bacteria and yeast that automatically mends clothes.

It doesn't have a name yet, but it's almost miraculous. Simply douse two halves of a ripped fabric in the stuff, hold them together under warm water for about 60 seconds, and the fabric closes the gaps and clings together once more. Having a bit of extra fabric on hand does seem to help, as the video mainly focuses on patching holes rather than re-knitting two halves of a torn piece. The team got the idea by observing how proteins in squid teeth and human hair are able to self-replicate. Then, they recreated the process using more readily available materials. Best of all, it works with almost all natural fabrics.

"Fashion designers use natural fibers made of proteins like wool or silk that are expensive and they are not self-healing," said Melik C. Demirel, professor of engineering science and mechanics at Pennsylvania State University, in a press release. "We were looking for a way to make fabrics self-healing using conventional textiles. So we came up with this coating technology." So far, all experimentation has focused on existing fabrics and garments, but the team envisions a future where clothes and specialized suits are made with the stuff built-in, thereby allowing the garment to "heal" itself as it washes. (It's not clear if bunching up such clothes, as is common in washing, will cause them to stick together once you pull them out.) It's also not just meant for klutzy household mishaps. As the coating can also neutralize chemicals before they reach the skin, the team imagines the process could be used for protective suits such as those used by scientists or the military, keeping their wearers from accidental exposure to toxic materials. Using the coating in medical meshes could also reduce the risk of infection for wounded patients, and farmers could stay protected from organophosphate pesticides.

According to the study, the team's research was "supported" by the Army Research Office and the Office of Naval Research.