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Eco-chic: the kilt that cuts pollution

Published on 26 February 2012

SCOTLAND'S traditional dress seems the most unlikely solution to global warming.

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But the kilt is being used to demonstrate how everyday clothing could help clean the air of polluted cities.

Fashion designers and scientists have together come up with the idea of using a type of nanotechnology which can be sprayed into any type of clothes and used to purify the surrounding air.

The catalyst particles involved – which are already used in some sunscreens – react with light to break down harmful air pollution which can trigger health problems such as asthma.

Experts are now working out how to cheaply incorporate the technology into a fabric conditioner which could turn it from the realm of sci-fi into a suitable product which could be on the market in around a year.

At the moment, the technology is unlikely to significantly change the way we live, as the treated clothing would have to be worn by thousands of people before it would make a big difference to air quality.

But if the majority of residents in a city the size of Edinburgh, for example, donned the pollution-busting garments, the technology could keep harmful emissions commonly produced by vehicles within safe levels.

Denim kilts which have been coated with the particles will be used to demonstrate the idea of "catalytic clothing" at the forthcoming Edinburgh Science Festival.

Helen Storey, professor of fashion and science at the London College of Fashion, said different "recipes" were currently being trialled to test the efficiency of the product.

She said: "The reason we have chosen to go down the laundry route is because [we're] trying to piggy back [on] human behaviour as it already exists.

"It's not about saying you have to wear a particular sports brand or you have to buy a particular designer brand in order to do it.

"We are taking something like the fact that everybody washes their clothes and everybody walks in cities as being our best chance of making the technology widely used."

Storey said the researchers were currently in discussions with ecological cleaning product firm Ecover about incorporating the nanotechnology into a cheap form which could be used on existing clothes, such as through a fabric conditioner.

She added that the intention was to measure and scientifically verify the impact of the catalytic clothing through assessing data from air quality stations – if enough people could be persuaded to wear it, of course.

"At some level we hope it becomes a threshold product," Storey said. "It might be around for everybody in all washing products."

The science behind the clothing is similar to the process of a catalytic converter in a car, which mops up pollution and converts it into less toxic substances.

The garments are treated with titanium dioxide nanoparticles – which are already used as a sunscreen and as a brightener in products like paint – which react in light and oxygen with air polluters such as nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide, which mainly comes from vehicle and industry emissions, is not considered harmful in itself, but when released in the air it becomes nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems.

But once on the treated clothing it is converted to harmless nitrates which can be washed away.

The scientist behind the project, Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University, said if everyone in a city such as Sheffield – which has a similar population to Edinburgh – wore the clothing, it would make an impact.

He said: "They would be able to take out enough nitric oxide to keep us below the safe limit throughout the whole of the year.

"One or two people doing it won't have any effect and you won't benefit from [just] you doing it.

"But you will benefit from me and everybody else doing it, so it is a whole community thing."

Howie Nicholsby, of Edinburgh-based 21st Century Kilts, has provided three kilts for the demonstration project at Edinburgh Science Festival on April 4.

Denim is being used as it has so far been found to be the material which works best for catalytic clothing.

"If I could offer this to my customers tomorrow, I would," he said. "I think it is an incredible concept for future generations."

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