A couple years ago, a little-known start-up called NeverWet dazzled the internet by demonstrating a spray-on coating that makes almost any surface darn near waterproof. A YouTube video, watched over five million times, showcases how unsulliable the technology is as beaded water droplets casually roll off treated shirts and spilled chocolate syrup simply slides down a pair of immaculately clean sneakers. And though the product wasn't available yet, potential buyers were already clamoring—as evidenced by a second clip posted last year that drew over 10 million views.
Cans of the suspicious invention finally arrived at Home Depot stores last summer, and it didn't take long for some folks, like Wall Street Journal tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, to realize that there was some slight of hand in the way the videos were put together. In reviewing the purported miracle-in-a-can for Slate, he noted that the spray "leaves a frost-colored haze on every surface" and that it "turns textures rough and faintly gummy." Viewers won't notice this in the demos since only white-colored objects are used, masking the undesirable effect.
Aamir Patel, a 20-year-old college student, was among the first to experience NeverWet's flaws firsthand. Applying the coating to one of his T-shirts, he found, gave it a sticky texture and caused it to stiffen. When he put the shirt in the washer, it came out ruined. But even more disturbing was when he discovered a warning label on the back of the can that stated that the Neverwet coating also contained a chemical known to cause cancer and birth defects. A report on BuzzFeed suggests that the coating may even cause brain damage. After an hour of wearing it, he claims to have felt dizzy and short of breath.
Patel now has a stain-proof T-shirt that he's more than comfortable wearing around. After several months of research, he developed Silic, a "self-cleaning" shirt that claims to be impervious to even the most ruinous liquids, such as maple syrup and mustard. A gimmicky video on Kickstarter.com shows it being doused with soda, juices and coffee. Embedded with silica (silicone dioxide) particles on the surface, the Silic will retain its water-repelling ability through as many as 80 wash cycles. Yet the fabric is soft, breathable and looks fashionable, thanks to a design created by Rebecca Clark, a former Vera Wang designer. Most importantly, Patel says that the "bonded" rather then coated material is safe and even possesses anti-microbial properties to maintain a fresh and sanitary garment.
A nanotechnology application process bonds billions of silica particles to Silic shirts' polyester fibers. The particles work to form a microscopic layer of air between the fabric and most liquids that come in contact with it. He adds that Silic has proven, in tests, to be hydrophobic, which essentially means it sheds water at a high contact angle, turning droplets into 150-degree orbs that tumble right off.
So how do we know the shirt is as durable as Patel claims? "The hardest part was beta testing the fabric to make sure it sustained the washing cycle," Patel says in an email. "By the end, the product had roughly a 1 1/2 year life cycle, after trying several prototypes and switching our supplier. It was well worth the effort."
As for ensuring safety, Patel says that nanotechnology has been used in making clothes for some time and that the fabric has undergone "rigorous safety testing," including inspections that take into account eco-friendly factors to "make sure the fabric does not harm the consumer."
The only real letdown, Patel admitted, was that the shirt isn't entirely self-cleaning. The hydrophobic surface won't do much against oil-based liquids or the minute amount of oil the skin produces. Inevitably, it'll need to be washed every now and then, just like any other shirt.
Since launching a crowdfunding campaign for his idea on Kickstarter, Patel has raised nearly $300,000 and plans to move forward with manufacturing and shipping out orders in the coming months. A pledge of $48 got a backer one shirt. Looking ahead, he says he may expand the Silic clothing line to other forms of apparel like hoodies and shorts, though he's focused first and foremost on delivering a quality product.