Vollebak is no stranger to fantastical attire. The company created the world’s first graphene jacket, an algae T-shirt that biodegrades in 12 weeks and a solar-charged running top that could absorb light and then turn glow-in-the-dark kryptonite green (to name only a few of the brand’s catalogue). And now Vollebak has turned its attention to the disease-resistant properties of copper.
The company’s new Full Metal Jacket is woven with more than 11 kilometres of copper thread, comprising some 65 per cent of the coat. The £895 jacket is made from a three-layered fabric created by Swiss textile-innovator Schoeller. The first layer is a lacquered copper yarn bound with polyurethane. This is then laminated with Schoeller’s waterproof, breathable fir cone-inspired membrane which, as well as being hydrophilic, has pores that can open and close to regulate temperature. Once the metal face fabric and membrane have bonded, an abrasion-resistant polyamide backing is then added.
Vollebak says that the result is a waterproof and windproof jacket that is both high-performance but will also wear like denim over time, with crease lines and colour fading to gradually reveal the raw copper colour. Oh, and it might kill coronavirus, too. “Might” being the optimal word there.
“We have not done any testing at all,” says Vollebak founder Steve Tidball. “None whatsoever. We don’t have a huge lab, we don’t have a team of scientists, and we don’t have access to Covid-19. So we can’t spray the jacket with Covid-19 to then see what happens. Our priority here was let’s get something that’s commercially available and made out of copper because we know copper has these disease-resistant properties.”
Indeed it has. Copper ions are released when microbes, transferred, say, by touch or sneeze, land on a copper surface. These ions create holes in the bacterial cell membrane or disrupt the viral coat, and destroy the DNA and RNA inside. What’s more, this also means no mutation can occur so the microbe cannot develop resistance to copper. As a result, copper alloys can kill superbugs, including MRSA.
And if you’re thinking these medicinal properties of copper are a recent discovery, far from it. Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian soldiers, after sharpening their bronze swords (an alloy of copper and tin), would place the discarded metal filings in wounds to reduce infection. Copper was used in similar ways in ancient China and India. Hippocrates in Greece and the Aztecs used copper oxide and copper carbonate, combined with olive paste and honey, as a treatment for skin infections. Copper workers in Paris were found to be immune from the city’s cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849 and 1852.
As a result, Vollebak isn’t the first to put copper in clothing. Copper yarn socks have been available in Japan for decades to combat athletes foot because copper is anti-fungal as well as anti-bacterial and anti-viral. In the UK, a company called Copper Clothing has a patent to impregnate copper salts into different fabrics – it even sells a copper-infused face mask. In the US, Cupron embeds copper nanoparticles into the fibres that go into a fabric, which Under Amour uses for its Cupron Boxerjocks.
The difference with Vollebak’s copper jacket is it shuns the particles and salts methods and goes for actual copper. It may have a stronger anti-microbial effect than nanoparticles, but as it is not spread throughout the fabric this may require a virus to physically land on a copper strand and not the surrounding polyurethane in order to be killed.
“If something lands on the actual copper base, then copper will have an anti-microbial activity. But if it doesn’t land on the strand – let’s say just adjacent to it – do you still get the same effect? All the work we’ve done has shown you’ve got to get direct contact,” says Bill Keevil, head of the microbiology group at the University of Southampton. “There are several published papers where if you put a thin permeable barrier between copper and bacteria, where the bacteria can’t physically touch the copper, then it doesn’t work.”
Unfazed, Tidball is confident that the Full Metal Jacket – which Vollebak has been working on for years and, predicting what events may unfold, stepped up production to bring forward its release from September to today – will provide protection of some degree, and may also be a platform for more copper clothing, including, yes, gloves and face masks.
“We started the project three years ago. Now, while it was remarkably prescient at the time, we now look out of touch. We’ve got the material right, but we might have the form wrong,” Tidball says.
Keevil disagrees. “There’s a great deal of concern about should people wear face masks. But no one says anything about outer clothing. Say you’re in a confined environment, a bus or metro carriage. If people are producing the virus and it is in the air, or falls down onto a surface, theoretically it could land on your clothing,” he says, adding that you can wash your hands and a face mask, but outerwear is trickier. “When people get home, do you just hang a coat up and hope there’s nothing on it or the bugs are dead? So, there is an argument for people wearing anti-microbial outer clothing.”
Jeremy White is WIRED’s executive editor. He tweets from @jeremywired
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