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New cloth self-cleans by killing bacteria

Chemists at UC Davis are reporting on a new self-cleaning cotton fabric that breaks down toxic chemicals and bacteria when exposed to light.

Applications could include clothing for health care workers, farmers, military personnel, and more. Andy Fell/UC Davis

Tossing clothes into the wash when dirty is so last year, thanks to a discovery by chemists out of the University of California at Davis. Near-ordinary cotton may simply need be exposed to light to get busy killing bacteria and breaking down toxic chemicals such as pesticide residues.

Ning Liu, a doctoral student at UC Davis, worked with textile chemists Gang Sun and Jing Zhu to develop a method that incorporates a compound (2-AQC) into cotton fabrics. When exposed to light, it produces reactive oxygen species such as hydrogen peroxide that kill bacteria and break down toxins.

While Liu says 2-AQC is more expensive than other compounds, it is difficult to remove from cotton due to strong bonding, and cheaper equivalents should work, too.

"The new fabric has potential applications in biological and chemical protective clothing for health care, food processing, and farm workers, as well as military personnel," she says.

The team reported on its findings in the Journal of Materials Chemistry last month, shortly before another study out of the University of Iowa chronicled the vast presence of even drug-resistant disease-causing bacteria on hospital curtains.