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Little robots in your pants

Making sense of revolutionary nanotechnology claim

By Jenny Everett
Popular Science

Making sense of revolutionary nanotechnology claim

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Nanotechnology is the science of building machines and materials at the molecular level, where key components are measured in nanometers, or one-billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology applications now being developed range from the fantastic (a supercomputer small enough to fit in your hand) to the mundane (stain-resistant khakis and longer-lasting tennis balls).

Probably the most visible nanotech product to date are the stain- and wrinkle-resistant slacks developed by North Carolina-based Nano-Tex LLC and sold as Levi Dockers and Lee Jeans among others.

Billions of tiny whiskers create a thin cushion of air above the cotton fabric, smoothing out wrinkles and allowing liquids to bead up and roll off without a trace.

The whiskers are added by dipping cotton fabric in a proprietary chemical solution before the fabric is cut, said Nano-Tex's Dolores Sides.

Because the particles are so small, they easily penetrate the fabric and coat each cotton thread completely without changing the way it looks or feels, she said.

The company has developed similar stain-resistant products for synthetic fibers and upholstery. One new product wraps synthetic fibers in an organic, cotton-like substance to create a garment that combines the longevity of polyester with the comfortable feel of natural fabric, she said.


(POPULAR SCIENCE) -- Dockers recently came out with a new brand of pants, the Go Khakis, which promise to keep your legs stain-free using revolutionary nanotechnology.

We couldn't help thinking that Dockers might be using the word "nanotechnology" more for marketing muscle than for true scientific purposes, so we called its customer service line to ask a few pointed questions. Here's a slice of the conversation.

Dockers: How can I help you today?

Popular Science: I just bought a pair of the Go Khakis, and I noticed it says they use something called nanotechnology for stain resistance. Can you please explain how that works?

D: Umm, it's, uh, DuPont Teflon coating, and basically what we're asking you to do is not to use powdered detergent and press them after every fifth wash, and dry cleaning is an option also. And do not use fabric softener, because it can interfere with that stain-defending property.

PS: Great, but can you explain what makes this nanotechnology rather than just a coating? What is nanotechnology?

D: One moment please. Did you get the pleated or flat-front?

PS: Flat-front.

D: OK, one moment please. Because the one that says nanotechnology is the versatile pant that wicks moisture away from you.

PS: It says nanotechnology repels stains.

D: OK, one moment please. Can you give me a style number off that?

PS: Sorry, I don't have it with me. But it was a "stain defender," and I believe it said "Go Khaki."

D: And that was the flat-front one.

PS: I believe so.

D: OK, I believe it does say nanotechnology because it's the 60-cotton, 40-micropoly blend.

PS: So that's where the nanotechnology comes in?

D: Uh-huh.

PS: I still don't understand. Are there microscopic machines repelling the stain? How does it work?

D: Umm . . . I guess it's the type of fabric that makes it the nano.

PS: So the "nano" has more to do with the size of the fibers? And water is small enough to get through for washing, but other liquids are not—they bead up and roll off?

D: You know, I'm really not sure, but I do know they'll come clean. My kid has a pair of these. Messy kid. So I got the shirt and pants, and he's doing great with them. You just need to remember to press after every fifth wash.

PS: But would you say the stain defender was the Teflon coating or the size of the fibers?

D: It's a Teflon finish on the pants.

PS: So is nanotechnology affecting the stain resistance?

D: I would say not. I need to help other customers, ma'am. Can I ask how you got the number to call us today?

PS: 1-800-DOCKERS? Lucky guess.

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