Textiles That Offer Hi-Tech Protection
June 4, 2014
Jadwiga Sójka-Ledakowicz, Ph.D., director of the Textile Research Institute in the central city of Łódź, talks to Karolina Olszewska about Envirotex, a zl.15.4 million project that is developing new-generation textiles offering protection against physical, chemical and biological hazards.
For five-years-and-a-half you’ve been managing an army of designers, engineers, scientists, technicians and visual artists working on the Envirotex project. They are developing a unique collection of textile materials. What kind of textiles are these?
They are designed for not only decoration, but also for protection against harmful environmental effects and occupational hazards. We have developed materials for protective clothing, such as hats for farmers and sports referees, gloves for food industry workers or those handling the production of securities and thus exposed to natural or artificial UV radiation. We have also developed materials to protect old prints in archives and museums. Another type of barrier material may be used to protect electronic devices that generate an electromagnetic field. Often when we use sensitive electronic equipment, such as diagnostic equipment in hospitals, there is interference from external sources of electromagnetic radiation. To prevent this, it is worth using wallpaper made from special screening textiles. They provide excellent protection for databases, such as those in banks. All of these textiles—for clothing, interior design, buildings and specialist lab equipment—have been developed in the Envirotex project.
In which environments are people most exposed to electromagnetic radiation? And how will your products protect them?
The textiles developed at the Textile Research Institute are innovative in global terms. For the first time we have used magnetron sputtering technology for putting thin metallic coatings on non-woven fabric. It should be emphasized that this technology was mainly used in the manufacture of protection screens. Non-woven fabrics produced using magnetron sputtering technology can be used as wallpaper, cladding or screens to protect against electromagnetic fields generated by various devices—for example those used in the rehabilitation of patients. Patients are subject to such fields for a short time. Meanwhile, the technicians operating these devices are exposed to radiation emitted by these fields for at least eight hours a day. A screen or wall cladding are consequently invaluable because they help attenuate the radiation. Our material is lightweight, adaptable and suppresses the electromagnetic field across a broad range of frequencies. It will also come in handy in banks and institutions with rooms holding servers and databases. With our materials, secret information will not leak out from such premises.
What about protection against ultraviolet radiation?
We all love to be out in the sun, but we must remember that excessive exposure is harmful to the skin and eyes. Textiles used for summer clothing or to protect inanimate objects often do not provide effective protection against ultraviolet radiation. As part of the Envirotex project we have developed a new generation of organic and inorganic absorbers—substances that, when introduced into the structure of the textile product, will make it either absorb sunlight or reflect it without reaching the skin.
As part of our project we have developed a research methodology and new criteria for assessing protection against UV radiation emitted from artificial sources—including in the UVC range, for textiles destined for clothing items and gloves.
It’s worth knowing that, aside from sunlight, UVC is also emitted by artificial sources. This is a serious problem in the food industry, including meat and fish processing plants that use antibacterial lamps. These lamps are designed to prevent the growth of microorganisms. Unfortunately, the UVC radiation they emit causes changes in the structure of the DNA. So it is easy to imagine just how dangerous it is for the human hand, for example. So we have developed special gloves from such materials that solve this problem. They have been tested out by employees at the Polish Security Printing Works [a government-owned company that prints banknotes, securities, documents, excise tax bands and postal stamps as well as plastic cards]. We have also developed clothing items for people working outdoors. These products have also been tested, including by highway and railroad track builders and airport tarmac personnel. All of them passed the tests.
Textiles offering protection against static electricity… How’s that possible?
This is about static that poses a risk of explosion. Protection against static electricity is needed for both workers and devices, including even ordinary computer workstations. We have filed patent applications for materials with new structures, including a special tape intended for various technical applications and clothing worn in static electricity hazard zones. The tape can be used as finishing for pants worn by those who work in hazardous areas or in special conditions. The charges are grounded by endings sewn in with this special tape, called conductive tape. Our products include not only protective clothing items and work clothes, but also materials for seat upholstery on public transportation and in public spaces. All of us have probably had some experience with static. This phenomenon is unpleasant, but not dangerous—unless in a danger zone where a small spark can cause an explosion. Our anti-static barrier materials meet all the standards in this field and their properties are confirmed by certificates.
Some of your products have camouflage properties. Can you tell us more?
This group of materials has been developed by the Moratex Institute of Security Technology for uniformed services, which means the military, police and Border Guard. They are supposed to be invisible and camouflage objects so that they cannot be detected by radar, for example. The results of this part of the project have already gone commercial. Polish company Arlen has been granted an exclusive license for five years. That’s all I can say, because it’s a national defense project.
Clothing and interior design bring to mind the world of fashion. Has your research project also involved fashion designers?
Yes, from the Łódź Academy of Fine Arts. What comes out of research centers should be appealing to users; otherwise these products won’t be successful on the market. Someone who will be putting on a hat, gloves or shirt must feel positive about what they’re wearing. Our clothing has attracted the attention of judges evaluating innovations at exhibitions in Brussels, Geneva and Paris as well as the IWIS international innovation show in Warsaw. And ordinary employees were keen on wearing our clothing.
Are your products already available in the stores?
We’ve started making efforts to go commercial with the new technologies developed in the project. We’ve submitted 17 inventions for patent protection, including two under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) procedure and one under the European Patent Office (EPO) procedure. We’ve already obtained the right of protection for three patents in Poland, two utility models and three industrial designs. We have reserved our “UV Stop” emblem with which our products will be labeled. We have received three certificates for clothing items and one for protective shutters—these certificates are needed for production to get under way. The technologies have attracted the interest of not only Polish but also foreign companies. A German company has taken an interest in the production of organic and inorganic absorbers. We are negotiating the terms of the license agreement on a method for imbuing materials with barrier properties using inorganic absorbers. Such materials will be used for shutters and awnings for museums as well as for everyday-use premises. They will be produced by a Polish company that is already conducting some initial research in the area. Interior furnishings such as curtains and blinds that provide effective protection against hazardous UV radiation will enter production later this year. I hope that “UV STOP” shutters will soon hit the stores.
Your research results have gone commercial even though your project is still in progress. That sounds like a major success...
The Textile Research Institute in Łódź is Poland’s oldest research center for the textile industry. Next year we will be celebrating our 70th anniversary. We have always created modern solutions for this sector. The starting point for the Envirotex project was the Textiles and Health scientific network, which was founded in 2002. That was my idea. With time, it went international, attracting five foreign members. The network conducted research in several areas. One of these was Med-textiles, which means health-oriented textiles; another was Eco-textiles—safe for humans. We must be aware that textiles can badly affect our health. Certain dyes, as a result of perspiration or other external factors, disintegrate into aromatic amines that are very carcinogenic. Another group was Enviro-textiles. These evolved into Envirotex. Physicists, biologists, chemists and textile technologists gathered together to develop textiles to protect people against physical, chemical, and biological threats. Thus, together we have created materials that are a barrier to UV radiation, electromagnetic fields, static electricity and microorganisms.
How is your work financed?
At the end of 2008, an agreement was signed for co-financing the project to the tune of zl.15.45 million from the [European Union’s] Innovative Economy Operational Programme, now overseen in Poland by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR). At the outset, we asked businesses if they would be interested in the results of our research. When submitting the applications we had letters of intent showing that we had support from industry. Currently, we are establishing cooperation with them, offering technologies developed in the Envirotex project.