Footwear companies will look anywhere for new technologies that will give them an edge in the market - but how many would think of looking to the Government?
Perhaps only a few, but that number is set to grow thanks to ion-mask, a new shoe technology developed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) that promises to be a truly breathable waterproof treatment.
The ion-mask product is a trademark of P2i Ltd, which was established in 2004 to commercialise super-liquid-repellent treatments developed by the MoD for the performance textiles, filtration and bio-consumable markets.
These treatments, of course, included what is now known as ion-mask, which was originally developed to protect soldiers from chemical attacks.
Nanotechnology at work
Described as a "space-age technology", the ion-mask treatment applies a super hydrophobic protective layer, just nanometres thick, over the entire surface of the shoe by means of an ionised gas, or “plasma”.
Plasma coating, a widely-accepted way of changing an item's surface without affecting its properties, begins by taking the target item and placing it in a gas that then has one or more of its electrons - subatomic particles that are the building blocks of molecules - disassociated from it, making it electrically conductive.
The electrically conductive form is known as plasma; it causes the molecules of the target item to also lose electrons. However, the molecules require electrons to remain stable and electrically neutral.
Thus, when a chemical such as the one used in ion-mask, is introduced to the item, the surface molecules of the item begin to share electrons with the chemical, bonding them on a molecular level. This means that the chemical is connected to the item on such a basic level that even this molecules-this coating cannot be rubbed or washed off.
Additionally, the ion-mask treatment not only nano-coats the external surfaces of the shoe but also the inside, between and around the individual fibres in the shoe. This makes the process particularly effective on shoes containing synthetic materials, although it will also coat other substances such as leather.
Invisible to the naked eye, the super hydrophobic ion-mask molecules allow the foot to breathe, but stop water seeping through the sides of the shoe, instead causing it to bounce off the surface like beads of mercury.
Additionally, because they also coat the interior of the shoe, they stop foot sweat from soaking in, helping it to evaporate more quickly.
All of this means that, unlike conventional waterproof treatments, the ion-mask enhancement does not require a waterproof layers, membranes or taped seams to be added into the shoe, keeping the weight down and allowing it to maintain its optimum fit.
In fact, P2i’s ion-mask enhancement is so powerful that it can take a pair of shoe that would normally fail the shoe flex test off the shelf of a shoe shop and render it highly water resistant.
Dr Stephen Coulson, technical director for P2i Ltd, said: “As the first truly breathable and waterproof treatment, ion-mask is unique.
"Not only can it be applied to finished shoes, but the level of breathability is unprecedented; in tests we have literally held the treated shoe up to our faces and breathed through it - and I wouldn’t suggest trying that with any current waterproofing techniques.”
The identity of the first high street store to sign-up to the ion-mask technology remains a closely guarded secret, but shoes are expected to hit the streets next summer.