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Walking, running, cycling, swimming, yoga, fitness classes and team sports are just some of the seemingly endless options for exercise. In many instances, there is specific clothing and sports equipment for these activities. Innovative fabrics and materials made possible by advances in textile chemistry can help improve sports performance for professional and recreational athletes alike.

Textile chemistry, sometimes referred to as fabric chemistry, is a highly specialized field that applies chemistry principles to the production of textiles. Textile chemistry is generally divided into three areas: dyeing and finishing chemistry, fiber and polymer chemistry, and a newer area that intersects with materials science and involves the blending of textile materials. Textile chemistry helps create innovative fabrics that provide water repellency, moisture wicking and odor absorption 

Chemistry Innovations in Performance Wear Fabrics

  • Bioceramic fabric, made by treating fabrics with bioceramic compounds of ionic materials like silver or tourmaline, can help athletes with temperature regulation and moisture management. Bioceramic compounds work by emitting far-infrared (FIR) rays into the skin. A study published in the Biology of Sport found that clothing that emits FIR, short electromagnetic waves that can penetrate into human tissue, might be used to help improve circulation, repair and regeneration of tissues, accelerating muscle recovery and lessen pain after exercising.
  • Hydrogel Spider silk: Researchers at Cambridge University have developed an environmentally-friendly process for making strong, stretchy threads that imitate spider silk. This lab-made spider silk is created from hydrogel composed of 98 percent water and 2 percent silica and cellulose. The silica and cellulose are held together by cucurbituril molecules which, when extracted from the hydrogel, result in a strong, stretchy biodegradable thread.

    Skier skiing downhill in mountainsArtificial spider silk may be able to improve products such as bike and skateboard helmets, parachutes and material used for hot air balloons. Artificial spider-silk is also biocompatible and may possibly be used inside the human body for stitches. Other instances of artificial spider silk in development include modified e-coli bacteria and genetically modified goats that produce milk with spider-silk protein.

  • Carbon fiber fabric has thermal insulating properties and is used to improve the comfort of garments like diving suits and ski wear. This fabric is also lightweight and has high tensile strength. Carbon fiber fabric has the potential to replace steel in high performance products like race cars and sports equipment.
  • Shear thickening fluid: The viscosity of shear thickening fluid increases under stress. An example of the use of shear thickening fluids is in football helmets to help reduce head injuries. At the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, researchers have been studying shear thickening fluids and have found a way to include this material in football helmet straps. This straps can help keep helmets in place to reduce the risk of head injuries.

    players on a football fieldSome of these innovations in fabrics and materials are not without controversy, however. In 2008, Speedo introduce its LZR Pulse™ fabric, which was used for swimsuits during the Beijing Olympics. Made from spandex which consists of polyurethane, nylon and elastane, the fabric is non-toxic and non-inflammatory. In addition to using this performance fabric, the swimsuit seams were ultrasonically welded instead of being stitched to help reduce the swimmers’ drag.

    While swimmers broke more than 100 world records using these swimsuits during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, FINA, the global governing body of swimming, issued regulations banning swimmers from wearing polyurethane and neoprene suits during competition due to the potential impact on performance results.

More Applications of Chemistry in Athletic Apparel and Sports Equipment

Textile chemists have made several other innovations resulting in products that have advanced athletics. These include specialty plastics and thermoset polymers, polycarbonate, polyurethane, and nanotechnology just to name a few.

  • Polyurethane is frequently found in running and other athletic shoes and can make them more resilient. Polyurethane can also be found in a wide variety of popular sporting equipment including soccer balls, surf boards, roller blades and bowling balls.
  • Polycarbonate, a strong shatter-resistant plastic, can be found in protective sports equipment. It is used in riding and biking helmets to protect riders during equestrian and cycling competitions. Polycarbonate used in sunglasses and protective visors helps to provide optical clarity and shatter-resistance. Polycarbonate lenses can also be found in swim goggles.
  • Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of matter at small sizes. Nanotechnology can improve the performance of golf balls by helping the balls redistribute their weight to slightly change direction and go where the golfer intended. Imperfections in golf club shaft materials are often filled with nanoparticles, and tennis rackets manufactured with nanomaterials become stiffer and lighter which can help give athletes faster returns and more powerful serves. Epoxy resins also help to make sports equipment lighter which can lessen fatigue.
  • FluoroTechnology products can offer unique, highly-beneficial performance properties to the outdoor industry, such as breathable membranes and long-lasting Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finishes that provide water repellency, oil repellency, stain resistance and soil release with abrasion-resistant finishes for apparel and equipment. In highly important applications, FluoroTechnology products help keep people safe by delivering life-saving protection in extreme weather and temperatures.

Advances in Fabrics and Sustainability

Chemical manufacturers also are innovating new products and materials that are playing a key role in promoting sustainability, through technologies that enable water and energy savings.

Chemours has created a water-repellent textile finish that can enhance clothing quality and durability of athletic wear material.

Teflon EcoElite™, a durable non-fluorinated fabric finish, allows athletes engaged in outdoor sports to have clothing and gear that can withstand wear and tear resulting from inclement weather. Teflon EcoElite™ is compatible with a variety of fabrics and provides water repellency on fabrics and fabric blends keeping athletes warm and dry in adverse weather conditions. The fabric finish repels stains and requires fewer washes and lower water temperature to remove stains, which can result in the use of less energy and a reduced environmental footprint.

reactive dye solution, AVITERA®SE dye, developed by Huntsman, can reduce water consumption in textile manufacturing. The dye requires less salt to adhere to the textile thereby allowing manufacturers to use less water at lower temperatures to wash off excess dyes. This can reduce energy use and carbon dioxide emissions.

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