Nanotech cotton opens up new possibilities for the fiber -- and its fans

April 18, 2012 By Jan Suszkiw
Coating a cotton fiber with clay nanoparticles (left) could someday mean environmentally friendly, flame-retardant cotton apparel and durable goods. Credit: Jaime Grunlan, Texas A&M University, colorization by Stephen Ausmus.

Cotton is going high-tech in New Orleans, La., where a team of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists is continuing a long tradition of innovative research on the prized natural fiber.

Starting in the 1950s, Ruth Benerito and her colleagues at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans conducted groundbreaking studies that gave rise to easy-care, permanent-press clothing and other consumer-friendly improvements that helped cotton better compete with , like polyester. Today, under the leadership of Brian Condon, the ARS cotton researchers in New Orleans are leveraging the latest developments in to bring cotton fully into the 21st century.

ARS is the chief intramural scientific research agency of USDA.

In one ongoing project, the researchers have teamed with Texas A&M University scientists to evaluate a first-of-its-kind, environmentally friendly flame-retardant for cotton apparel and durable goods. Halogenated flame retardants have been among the most widely used chemical treatments, but there's been a push to find alternatives that are more benign and that won't cause treated fabric to stiffen, according to Condon.

Closer view of the clay nanoparticle coating of the cotton fiber. Credit: Jaime Grunlan, Texas A&M University, colorization by Stephen Ausmus

Made of water-soluble polymers, 50- to 100-nanometer clay particles and other "green" ingredients, the experimental fabric treatment reacts to open flame by rapidly forming a swollen charred surface layer. This stops the flame from reaching underlying or adjacent fibers in a process known as "intumescence," notes Condon, co-author of a May 2010 ACS Nano paper.

Early trials of the nanocoating using standard flame-resistance tests have been promising. In one case, 95 percent of treated cotton fabric remained intact after exposure to flame versus complete destruction of untreated fabric used for comparison.

In another project, the ARS scientists are generating ultrasonic fields of mechanical energy to improve enzyme-based processing of raw ("greige") cotton to strip away waxes and other fiber components that can hinder subsequent dying procedures and diminish product quality.

Explore further: Cotton is the fabric of your lights... your iPod... your MP3 player... your cell phone

More information: Read more about this research in the April 2012 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

Related Stories

Researchers study cotton gin dust emissions

July 5, 2011

The last of seven cotton gins is being tested this year as the fieldwork for a major 4-year cotton gin dust sampling project draws to a close. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists organized the project to intensively ...

Cotton's potential for padding nonwovens

September 9, 2011

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists have conducted studies to investigate the use of virgin cotton in nonwoven materials and products. The work was led by cotton technologist Paul Sawhney and his colleagues at ...

Recommended for you

New nanomaterial maintains conductivity in 3-D

September 4, 2015

An international team of scientists has developed what may be the first one-step process for making seamless carbon-based nanomaterials that possess superior thermal, electrical and mechanical properties in three dimensions.

Graphene made superconductive by doping with lithium atoms

September 2, 2015

(—A team of researchers from Germany and Canada has found a way to make graphene superconductive—by doping it with lithium atoms. In their paper they have uploaded to the preprint server arXiv, the team describes ...

Making nanowires from protein and DNA

September 3, 2015

The ability to custom design biological materials such as protein and DNA opens up technological possibilities that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. For example, synthetic structures made of DNA could one day be ...

For 2-D boron, it's all about that base

September 2, 2015

Rice University scientists have theoretically determined that the properties of atom-thick sheets of boron depend on where those atoms land.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.