UW-Madison professor weaves Wisconsin idea into the chemistry of cloth

05/23/05

MADISON - To paraphrase a popular advertising line, Majid Sarmadi doesn't make the products you use every day. He makes them better.

The products in question here are textiles, and Sarmadi has uncovered new technologies to make cloth less static, more absorbent, more repellent, better able to take prints and dyes, deflect or absorb light, shield from electromagnetic radiation and more. In addition, he also has found methods of reducing waste and environmental pollution relating to textile manufacture.

A member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty since 1986, Sarmadi holds joint appointments in both the College of Engineering's Materials Science Graduate Program and the School of Human Ecology's Department of Environment, Textiles and Design (ETD). As one of the world's leading textile chemists, a member of the Center for Plasma-Aided Manufacturing, Sarmadi works closely with colleagues in the disciplines of forestry, chemistry, medicine and biological systems engineering as well as materials science and textiles.

"I feel like a cluster hire all on my own," he says, although he is quick to credit his graduate students and colleagues, especially materials science associate professor Ferencz Denes, for his success. "Faculty stand on the shoulders of their colleagues and their graduate students," Sarmadi says.

The cornerstone of Sarmadi's research is applying cold plasma technology, generated in a high-voltage electric field at low pressure, to textiles. Specific plasma gases can modify functional characteristics of the fabric or achieve new properties.

Not one to stop there, however, Sarmadi also has applied his plasma technologies to reduce manufacturing waste and environmental pollution. For example, every day millions of gallons of water go toward the dyeing of fabrics; Sarmadi has devised a way to reuse the dye bath to both cut the level of environmental contaminants and save water and energy.

This application of plasma techniques has proved most personally satisfying of all his research activities, he says.

"Helping to preserve the environment by reducing pollution comes first - the economic benefits are the icing on the cake," he says.

At the moment, Sarmadi is working on developing an "interactive" fabric that kills microorganisms on contact by depositing a thin layer of chemicals onto the cloth to make it inhospitable to microbes. The nontoxic chemical film would have the added advantage of not encouraging the microbe to adapt to the environmental change, he says.

"The increase in the transmission of highly infectious diseases demands proactive textiles to keep microbes at bay. The need for effective, nontoxic antimicrobial treatment of fabric is greater than ever, due to the biological and chemical threats in many environments in which humans live and work," he says. "This technology could have immediate applications in hospitals, the food processing industry, nursing homes and many other industries."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Sarmadi is in demand as an expert adviser to a number of industries and agencies, ranging from Meriter Hospital to Kimberly-Clark Corp. to the Pleasant Co. to being a color consultant for the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy and for the restoration of the State Capitol. In addition, he is a Rothermel Bascom Professor and has received more than 10 different awards, including the School of Human Ecology Faculty Excellence Award and the American Society for Testing and Materials International/the Albany International Research Company's Harold DeWitt Smith Memorial Medal.

He also brings his cutting-edge, highly specialized technology to elementary, middle and high schools in Madison. Since 1999 he has worked with UW-Madison's Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) program, which brings more than 100 low-income middle and high school students and their teachers to campus every summer.

Sarmadi's own approach to research, putting basic knowledge-finding to practical application, also serves as inspiration to current students.

"It makes me kind of a hybrid scholar," he says. "I've tried to capture the Wisconsin Idea by moving from basic research to its real-world application within a single lab."

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