Your reliable, plain cotton t-shirt might be on the cusp of a technological breakthrough, thanks to sugar.
A group of scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel were curious about how they might make cotton fabric more useful, so they figured out a way (paywall) to trick the plant into eating up a couple of lab-made mixtures: one that made cotton glow and one that turned it magnetic.
It’s a scientific innovation that may help researchers and entrepreneurs find new uses for cotton. Glowing fabric could be used to make clothing for nighttime settings—think construction workers or evening joggers. And a high-tech magnetic fabric could be incorporated into electronic devices people use everyday. As Forbes pointed out, nearly all digital storage is possible because of magnets, be it in your phone, laptop, or large-scale servers.
To be sure, this isn’t the first that a fabric has been rejiggered by researchers to take on other properties. Scientists have found ways to tinker mostly with synthetic fibers such as polyester by coating them. But researchers at the Weizmann Institute say their method literally embeds new functionality into the fabric strands.
“Current approaches that rely on fiber coatings suffer from function loss during wear,” they wrote in a recently published study. “We present an approach that allows biological incorporation of exogenous molecules into cotton fibers to tailor the material’s functionality.”
They were able to do this by literally tricking the plants to eat a mixture using sugar. First, they tagged fluorescent-dye molecules to glucose, then bathed cotton ovules—the part of the plant that contains the female germ cell and later becomes the plant seed—in the glucose. The tagged glucose molecules were absorbed into the plant cells, and as the plant fibers grew, they took on fluorescent qualities: When hit with the right kind of light, the cotton glowed green. Still curious, scientists replaced the fluorescent molecules with the rare-earth metal dysprosium, which can serve as a magnet. The result was a fiber that exhibited magnetic qualities.
There were some setbacks during the research. Sneaking those extra molecules into the cotton fibers changed the molecular makeup of the plant, which made the strands weaker than typical cotton. But the researchers told Forbes they believe that downside could be overcome.