UPDATE: Since this article published, Co.Design has learned that Aerochromics is not a real product. Inks that react to pollution exist, but the Aerochromics T-shirts themselves do not exist, and Nikolas Bentel did not receive assistance from Autodesk Applied Research Lab to develop the technology. Because Bentel misled us, we no longer stand by the facts of the story.—Eds
It's a great atmospheric Catch 22 that polluted air yields the most beautiful sunsets. The same paradox holds true for Aerochromics: a line of shirts whose patterns are awoken by carbon monoxide, particulates, and radiation in the air.
Part fashion, part activism, the project is the brainchild of designer Nikolas Bentel. It came out of a thought exercise in which Bentel imagined what the world would be like 20 years from now. One of the problems he saw was the worsening of air pollution around the world, and in the way the air quality index (AQI) for each city is measured—at stationary points. In reality, the actual pollution at a given place could be far worse, or better, depending on where an individual stands. "I am not a politician and I’m not an actor so my medium [to effect change] is designed objects," he says.
A more effective way to understand air pollution, he reasoned, was at the individual level. His speculative garments would essentially be a litmus test for air quality. When the air quality is good, they would be solid in color. When the air quality becomes unhealthy, as determined by the standards in the AQI, a pattern would materialize. The more polluted the air, the more pronounced the pattern.
Each of the three shirts would react to a different element in the air using a different type of ink—and the technology that enables these reactions has been around for a while. Over the course of "one long year," Bentel (with the assistance of the Autodesk Applied Research Lab) both developed his own recipes and looked to commercially available inks to yield the reactive patterns.
For carbon monoxide, Bentel looked to the ink used in common, low-tech household CO detectors and used the same substance—metal salts—in the fabric dye. As the dye comes in contact with carbon monoxide, a camouflage motif appears. As the ratio of oxygen to carbon monoxide increases, another chemical reaction takes place and the fabric returns to white.
For the particulate-matter detecting shirt ("particulates" can refer to anything tiny enough to become lodged in your lungs, like dust or exhaust, and is potentially harmful), Bentel embedded sensors in the shirt and a micro-controller in the collar. Small heat pads are woven throughout the shirt and when the sensors detect an unhealthy level of particulates, the micro-controller sends a signal for those pads to warm up, which activates a thermo-sensitive dye. Voila, a polka-dot pattern materializes. Since the heating dot pads are pretty thick, wearers don't notice a change in temperature.
The radiation-activated shirt, which is still under development, is the only one that doesn't return back to its original state after coming in contact pollutants. "One change is enough because you don’t want to get next to radioactivity often," Bentel says. Using a chemical indicator dye similar to what's in commercial radiation-detecting products, the shirt detects electron-beam radiation (the same radiation that's sometimes used to treat cancer).
Seeing your shirt come alive with patterns as you walk through a polluted area sounds horrifying, but that's the goal. "It’s definitely a little bit disconcerting, which is what gives the project a little bit more potency," Bentel says. Outrage-inducing awareness is the first step to positive change, right?
Bentel has priced the shirts at about $500 a pop (a too-expensive sum, he admits) to see what kind of demand exists. If you like the shirts' patterns more so than their party tricks, non-reactive versions are available for $90. Find them for sale at aerochromics.com.