In a collaborative effort to create a functional swimsuit that cleans the ocean, UCR professors and the Eray Carbajo design firm recently won the international Reshape15 competition for the best of wearable technology.

For the past four years, electrical engineering professors Mihri and Cengiz Ozkan along with graduate students, Daisy Patino and Hamed Bay have been trying to create an environmentally friendly swimsuit that would reverse the damage done by oil tankers that have polluted our oceans.

As part of the competition, they developed the Sponge, a permeable material primarily composed of tempered sucrose capable of repelling water while absorbing oil-based contaminants. The Sponge has been designed to refrain from contaminating the human body by keeping the oil-based contaminants safely constricted inside the swimsuit itself, only to be expelled during an intense sanitation and recycling process at an extremely high temperature.

The swimsuit is comprised of two key components: the Sponge, which weighs only 54 grams and the plastic frame, which has been termed “elastomer.” Professor Cengiz Ozkan explained, “[The] Spongesuit will be designed to elastically fit the human body and will be very comfortable. The sponge material will be blended or incorporated within the fiber structure, which will be woven into a sponge fabric. The sponge suit concept will be extended to other wearable clothing such as swimming shorts and divers suit.”

The Sponge inserts are reusable up to 20 times and then can be recycled. A new sponge can be inserted in the frame allowing the bathing suit to be used again. Although the sponges must be replaced, Professor Mihri Ozkan prices the Sponge at approximately “fifteen cents per gram of sponge,” making it a cost effective when manufactured in mass quantities — a small price to pay for a positive impact on our planet.

After creating this super-hydrophobic sponge and incorporating it into a functional and fashionable — piece of swimwear, Dr. Mihri Ozkan says she hopes that their work will inspire others in the swimsuit or athletic clothing industry into actually creating functional fashion. “Green technology and sustainability are important buzzwords (in the clothing industry), but we have to move beyond using these buzz words.”

When asked about their future ambitions for the swimsuit technology, Dr. Cengiz Ozkan reveals that, “There are other concepts and applications we are working on including water purification and chemical decontamination.” Aside from decontamination the sponges have other excellent uses.

Dr. Mihri Ozkan explains, “It can prevent corrosion of ships/boats from sea water, if they are painted with paints imbedded with the sponge’s protective properties. This paint can be applied to surfaces in contact with water and/or with air. Paints exposed to air will also work well for decontamination and also for corrosion protection.”