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'Smart' textiles emerge from nanotech labs

Nanotechnology is shaping the fabric of our lives by helping to create not just clothes that may never wear out, but smart shirts that track all kinds of physiological data. By CNBC's Cory Johnson.
/ Source: CNBC

Every now and again, some new technology comes along that’s applied to something so mundane, that the innovation itself almost gets lost. The same might be said about some sectors of nanotechnology -- textiles in particular

Now, nanotechnology is literally shaping the fabric of our lives by helping to create not just clothes that may never wear out, but smart shirts that track all kinds of physiological data -- everything from new military uniforms to the ultimate in home-health-care pajamas.

Now, high fashion is meeting high tech -- in this case, at Nano-Tex in Emeryville, Calif. which has developed a new fabric that is showing up in Brooks Brothers shirts, Nordstrom ties, and travelsmith sports jackets

Where normal fabric absorbs stains like grape juice, nanotech fabric from Nano-Tex repels it. The fabric is coated with molecules the company engineered. They attach themselves to one another, and then attach to the fabric forming a nano shield against stains.

But unlike like Scotch-Guard or traditional coatings, this nano approach doesn't change the texture of the fabric.

Textile companies using nanotech are getting increasing attention because their products touch so many parts of consumers' lives: everything from clothing to car seats. It’s a massive market ripe for nano-improvement. Nano-Tex widely credited with rescuing Burlington Industries by turning its textiles into high-tech wonders.

Nano-Tex is already on store shelves, but now it may be coming to a soldier or police officer soon.

Sensatex, based in Bethesda, Md., is working with the military, emergency workers and doctors to develop what it calls a “smart shirt” -- clothing featuring tiny microscopic wires interwoven into the fabric itself.

By turning garments into communication devices, this kind of technology that could one day help outfit the soldier of the future, keeping track of vital signs, and even heat up or cool down depending on the weather. The technology could remotely monitor home-bound patients who wear these shirts, capturing vital data and then beaming it wirelessly to a doctor, a hospital, a family member or wherever it needs to go.

“We haven't even begun the nano-revolution,” said Sensatex CEO Robert Kalik. "Throughout society, the ability to unplug from wires and utilize smart textiles to gather the information and then disperse that information, that data, through wireless communications, will be really the textile of the future."

Nano-Tex is already licensing its technology to 20 of the world's biggest mills, so there's a good chance you may be wearing the fabric and not even know it. It’s an example of the revolutionary innovation that’s beginning to appear in every-day life, but which, so far, is invisible to the naked eye.

“We're solving seemingly mundane but actually quite large problems like spill resistance, wrinkles, perspiration, odor in every day clothing,” said Nano-Tex CEO Donn Tice.

Sensatex continues to search for investors, while clothing from Nano-Tex is already on store shelves.

(CNBC's Jim Goldman and Candice Tahi contributed to this story.)