Catalytic Clothing: An Unconventional Collaboration Explores Fabrics That Can Purify the Air

Clothes can do more than just make you look good

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DED Design / Courtesy of Catalytic Clothing

Field of Jeans exhibition in London's Chelsea neighborhood, organized by Catalytic Clothing in 2011.

What if clothing was more than just a sartorial accessory? The green movement is not new to fashion, and many designers and manufacturers have been actively seeking out ways to ensure their garments have less of an environmental impact. But what if your clothes were actually able to have a positive impact on the environment?

This vision is one shared by the two founders of Catalytic Clothing: Professor Tony Ryan, a scientist from the University of Sheffield, and Professor Helen Storey, a designer and artist from the London College of Fashion. Together they are working on a project at the nexus of fashion and science, one that draws on the growing field of nanotechnology to create a fabric additive that can break down pollutants in the air.

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“In a sense, it’s a recycling of an existing technology that exists in toothpaste and sunscreen,” Professor Storey explains. The additive contains nanoparticles of titanium dioxide which act as a catalyst. When light hits these particles, they react with oxygen to make what is essentially a peroxide bleach. This in turn reacts with air pollutants such as nitric oxide (a common urban contaminant) and breaks them down.


Rachel Hazell / Courtesy of Catalytic Clothing

Professor Helen Storey and Professor Tony Ryan at the Edinburgh Science Festival in 2012.

While this technology could be used to create an entirely new fabric, Professor Ryan thinks that it has greater potential as an additive. “It only needs to be on the surface,” he says. “You don’t embed it in the fibers, and that means that it’s really easy to retrofit existing fabrics with the technology. We think the best way to do this is via the laundry, because everyone washes their clothes.”

For those who would worry about potential dangers inherent in turning your wardrobe into a mobile science lab, Ryan reassures, “The pollution’s not absorbed into the fabric…the pollution comes across the fabric and when it leaves, it turns into something else that’s less dangerous.”  And while sunshine is the most ideal light source to activate the reaction, interior lamp lights will also have an effect—so overcast days should not be an impediment to the process.

Jeans have been a particular focus of Catalytic Clothing, both because they are widely prevalent as well as that the particles bind especially well to cotton denim. And while the amount of air pollutants broken down by any one individual wearing catalyzed jeans is minor, “collectively, we can have a huge impact on the quality of the air and therefore respiratory health,” Storey says. According to Ryan, 4 people wearing catalyzed jeans in a day would neutralize the nitric oxide air pollution created by one car. 25 people wearing the jeans would undo the damage done in a day by a mass transit bus.

The future might be one in which this pollution-busting fabric additive is so pervasive that we no longer give it a second thought, like flouride in tap water. And perhaps sooner than you think—though at the moment it’s not commercially available, Ryan estimates that it could be within a year or less. “There are a number of companies that are actively looking at photocatalysis for the market,” he says. Catalytic Clothing is aiming for mass adoption, Storey says: “We deliberately haven’t put a patent on anything. We’ve asked the laundry industry to take it and [make] their own formulas on it in order that they can have something to patent, that it can be upscaled.”  The day is near when we’ll be able to make our clothes work for us in more ways than one.

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