Oct 12, 2015 | By Kira

From the ocean to our local lakes and even neighbourhood swimming pools, water contamination and pollution is an increasing concern. The ecological devastation from major oil spills can last for years, killing marine life and destroying the quality of one of our most precious resources, and the cleanup efforts themselves often require using more chemicals, contributing to further contamination. Now, a new wearable technology could make it possible for every one of us to do our part just by going for a leisurely dip. A breakthrough ‘super-material’ created by University of California Riverside engineers has the ability to repel water while safely absorbing and storing the toxins within, and has been incorporated into a 3D printed bikini that will allow wearers to clean our oceans as they swim. The recyclable, economically sustainable and intelligently manufactured material, known as Sponge, won first place in the Reshape 2015 international design competition, and is one of the most promising forays into eco-conscious wearable technology. 

Created by Mihri Ozkan, electrical engineering professor at UC Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, Cengiz Ozkan, her husband and fellow engineering professor, Daisy Patino, and Hamed Bay, Sponge is a highly porous and super hydrophobic material derived from heated sucrose (a form of sugar). The nano-scale structure of the material allows it to absorb more than 25 times its own weight in contaminants, and does not release the absorbed materials unless it is heated at a temperature exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius. It also traps the contaminants in the inner pores, meaning that they won’t touch the wearer’s skin, and the material can be used up to 20 times before being recycled.

“We designed a swimwear that is environmentally proactive, economically sustainable and intelligently manufactured combining cutting edge 3D printing and nano-scale clean-tech material research,” said the developers. “SpongeSuit aims to transform the swimming experience into an eco-friendly activity, by helping clean seas while swimming, one stroke at a time.”

The team began development on the material four years ago for applications such as cleaning up oil spills or desalinizing water, and predicts that it could be used in paint applied to airplanes and satellites, however the idea to incorporate it into a wearable technology came from Pinar Guvenc, Inanc Eray and Gonzalo Carbajo, partners of Eray Carbajo, an architecture and design firm based in New York City and Istanbul. The make the swimsuit, the material was moulded into the shape of a bikini and encapsulated into a ‘cage’ made from a strong 3D printed elastomer with the necessary flexibility to fit to the contours of the body.

In addition to the stylish bikini shown above, the material could also be used for men’s bathing suits, swimming caps or full-body wetsuits. And, once the material has been sufficiently used, the pads can simply be replaced with fresh ones to continue its water-cleaning mission without requiring the wearer to buy a brand new suit. The developers even predict that in the near future, there could be facilities much like dry cleaners that collect the used SpongeSuits, separate the contaminants, and recycle the rest. Finally, the material is surprisingly affordable and has serious mass market potential. Since it is made from sugar, the per-gram cost is only 15 cents, reducible with economies of scale.

SpongeSuit won first place in the Reshape 2015 wearable technology competition, whose mission is to merge innovative ideas with fabrication processes and market viabilities. Their distributed network of fabrication includes Fab Labs and Maker Space, equipping all participants with digital fabrication machines such as laser cutters, 3D printers, milling machines and robotic arms in order to bring their idea to reality. Furthermore, Reshape’s e-commerce platform helps brings winning ideas directly to market, meaning that the SpongeSuit could be available to consumers in the very near future. The developers have already filed patents for the material, and will be presenting the entire concept at Maker Faire in Rome on Oct 16.

“Absorbing everything but water, the material is a powerful tool for water and contaminant separation,” said the developers. “SpongeSuit is a preliminary effort to create an actively eco-conscious wearable technology…Reprogrammability, recyclability and affordability are intriguing properties of the technology, allowing room for further research and development in clean-tech wearable. We aim for a future where everyone, with any shape and form of swimming outfit, can contribute to the cleanliness of the seas by a sports activity or simply a leisurely summer vacation.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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