Wash away pollution: Wear his kilt, her designer dress

Believe in miracles. The latest wrinkle in 'catalytic clothing' heads to the Edinburgh Science Festival. Chemistry meets a Vivienne Westwood frock and could steal the show - and greenhouse gases.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
Chemist Tony Ryan and fashion expert Helen Storey collaborate to fight pollution and greenhouse gases. Photo from University of Sheffield via evone.co.uk.

Get ready for the latest, er, wrinkle, in eco-friendly clothing: A scientest and a fashion guru plan to strut around the Edinburgh International Science Festival in garb that sucks pollutants and greenhouse gases right out of the air.

Chemist Tony Ryan from the University of Sheffield in England will don a denim kilt, and London College of Fashion professor Helen Storey hopes to wear a top and a ball gown from iconic designer Vivienne Westwood, all sprayed with a catalyst that according to Ryan sponges up nitrous oxide, nitric oxide and volatile organic chemicals.

Storey revealed the Edinburgh plans this morning during the BBC radio program The Life Scientific.

"Tony is going to be wearing a catalyzed denim kilt, complete with sporran and special socks," she said. "And I hopefully am going to be wearing an air-purifying Vivienne Westwood top and ball frock." (For the non-kilt enthusiasts among you, a sporran is part of the Scottish Highland regalia - it's the pouch around the waist that compensates for the kilt's lack of pockets).

Storey and Ryan will also present their vision during an April 4 session as part of the 17-day festival that starts on March 30.

The two collaborators first unveiled plans for their Catalytic Clothing line last summer. In this morning's radio program, Ryan explained that a coating of "nano-titania" - commonly used in sunscreen lotions - can catalyze a reaction in which light and oxygen rid the air of the pollutant nitric oxide by turning it into nitrate that washes away. According to  Catalytic's website, the catalyst has the same effect on the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Titania is also known as titanium dioxide, which chemists in China are applying to self-cleaning shirts. Wikipedia says titania is the naturally occurring oxide of titanium.

Ryan, a keen cyclist who is vice chancellor of the university, said that nitric oxide causes respiratory ailments like asthma.

"I have this vision of you sort of dressed up in lycra, coated in this material, cycling around the streets of Sheffield, sucking up all the pollution like some sort of scientist superhero," interviewer Jim Al-Khalili glibly remarked.

To his surprise, Ryan replied,  "As soon as I can treat the clothing of the guys I go cycling with, that's exactly what we'll do on a Saturday morning." He said he wants the clothing to reduce the amount of nitric oxide in the city to safe levels. "We hope to set up a proper laundry, so people can bring their clothes in and have them done and go out and be catalyzed," he said. "And I'm hoping that it will get into the market."

For those not familiar with Sheffield, it's the Pittsburgh of England -  the country's former blast furnace. If you saw the movie The Full Monty, you saw Sheffield. Like the film's unemployed steelmill workers turned Hot Chocolate-inspired stripteasers, if Ryan's technique works, then you might believe in miracles.


NOTE: This story corrects an earlier version, replacing the word "nano-titanium" with "nano-titania," and adding an explanation of nano-titania. Updated on Feb. 23 at 3:45 a.m. PST, following reader comments below (headlined "Unintended consequences" and "And titanium is readily available too") and after listening again to the Tony Ryan radio interview -- fast forward to 12:40 to hear the reference. Thank you readers for your remarks. I've added one myself below (headlined "Correction.."). Keep 'em coming, and I recommend the radio interview, which covers chemistry's relationship to a breadth of environmental subjects, not just " catalytic clothing."--MH

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