Textile Trials

Science helps create technical textiles for clothes that protect first responders, repel bacteria, and keep us cool and dry.

RALEIGH - We’ve all seen the video of the raging forest fires last summer that scorched thousands of acres of land in the west. Unfortunately, those fires continued last fall and into the winter. 

The protective uniforms that forest firefighters wear are not only designed to keep the person safe from flames and heat. The gear must also be flexible and relatively comfortable. It’s too late and too dangerous to discover a problem with protective gear in the middle of a fire.

So who tests whether that fire turnout gear is really safe? It’s a job for PyroMan.

“PyroMan is a true life-saver because when you can actually put gear on a mannequin and see how it lays, see the air gaps and see how it all works together, that’s how you know it works and that’s just so important,” says John Morton-Aslanis, a research associate at North Carolina State University’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC).

PyroMan is a life-sized mannequin outfitted with 122 sensors that sits behind specialty glass in a lab at the center, which takes up one floor of a building at NC State’s Centennial campus. Natural gas-fed flamethowers blast fire at the mannequin, heating the room to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The operator counts down before the test, a hiss of gas is heard and then blinding flame and light explode in the testing room. It is too bright to watch. About 20 seconds later, the flames go out and everything is dark.

PyroMan is outfitted in the gear to be tested. The flames are turned on for a designated period of time. The burn injury prediction report, which shows an outline of a human body in different colors, details how well the clothing held up.

“You are helping to develop clothing that will protect firefighters, military, oil rig workers, and the list goes on,” adds Morton-Aslanis. “It’s a good feeling because you’re helping to develop the fabric that will protect those workers and you need to see how the entire system works, not just a piece of cloth that you’ve been testing.”

The lab and the sensors were developed at NC State.

“What we are talking about is how do we engineer better protective material to give them the precious seconds to escape from a fire and minimize their burn injury,” says Dr. Roger Barker, Director of TPACC. “And by using these tools, like pyroman, that is the most accurate evaluation you can do without a fire, and in a controlled situation in this lab we can do exactly that. “

While researchers at the center focus much of their work on protecting first responders from heat, fire, toxins and biological agents, textile manufacturers ask the center to test fabrics for every type of use. While the old saying maintains that clothes make the person, in this lab, technology makes the textiles that make the clothes.

“In today’s world of technical textiles, there are so many different fibers, so many different fabric constructions and everything,” says Dr. Barker, showing off a room with an arrangement of roughly a half dozen machines of different shapes and sizes sitting on a counter. The machines are hooked to computers.

“One reason for all of those specialty fibers is because of the research we do to see how they perform, so we can know how to choose the fiber or engineer a new fiber or fabric to make it better,” says Dr. Barker.

Dr. Barker explains the machines are used to measure the various qualities of fabrics, such as how scratchy or soft it might feel as well as how easily it is deformed.

“This device tells us how easily a fabric will stretch and recover and how easily it will tear,” explains Dr. Barker, showing off a machine with clamps on each side of a swatch of fabric. There are meters on each clamp, which measure how hard the material is being pulled apart. 

The lab is unique in the country. A good example of its capabilities is found in the next room Dr. Barker shows us. 

The environmental chamber is designed to simulate multiple environments. It’s a sealed room that includes giant heat lamps on the ceiling, a treadmill in the center, and a rack holding a mannequin. A mix of arms, pulleys and levers move the mannequin’s arms and legs as if it is walking.

“We can simulate fire conditions with the heat lamps,” says Dr. Barker.

Just like PyroMan, the mannequin in this room is also outfitted with sensors. However, Dr. Barker is quick to point out that for all of the technology that is employed in the testing of fabrics, the evaluation is not limited to technology.

“Even sensors have their limitations,” Dr. Barker says, smiling.

That’s why Jeremy Lewis, who is a senior in textile technology and supply chain operations, is wearing protective gear while walking on the treadmill.

“Basically we’re testing flexibility and comfort properties as well as stability and the actual structure itself," says Lewis. “It’s important that people wear the clothes, because the mannequin can spit out data all day long, but until you get a human in there to see how it really feels, you just don’t know."

In a sense, the textile-testing lab reflects North Carolina’s textile industry, which has evolved from simple cotton fabrics to technical textiles.

“The textile industry in North Carolina is a very exciting place to be right now, because so many things are happening in the world of technical textiles, so many innovations, that it’s very different than what it was,” says Dr. Barker, as he looks proudly around his lab. “It has changed a great deal in response to the needs. So right now manufacturers are producing value added products that have a protective performance, or a comfort performance for the consumer.”

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