They combined the carbon in the cotton with boron to create a tough, lightweight fabric of boron carbide, the same material used to protect tanks.
Available at Wal-Mart, the treated T-shirt would be not only bulletproof, but also resistant to ultraviolet light from the sun and life-threatening neutrons emitted by decaying radioactive materials.
The research could lead to more comfortable body armour for soldiers and police.
It could even be used to produce lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircraft.
“The current boron carbide armour is strong, but its not flexible and its very heavy. We tried to solve this problem but with a different approach. In our approach, we used cotton T-shirts,” said Xiaodong Li, a scientist at the University of South Carolina.
The trick for the scientists was combining dissolved boron with the carbon fibers inside the cotton fibers to form boron carbide.
The feat began with a 5-dollar package of plain, white T-shirts purchased at Wal-Mart, which the scientists cut into thin strips.
They dipped those white cotton strips into a black solution of boron.
After an hour, the strips were removed from the solution and baked in at oven at more than 1,000 degrees Celsius (1832 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour.
The heat stripped away anything that wasn’t carbon or boron, and combined these two elements into boron carbide.
The resulting fabric is very different than the original materials that at the start of the process-it’s lighter, stronger, tougher and stiffer than the original cotton, but it can still be bent, unlike normal boron carbide armour plates.
Li said that the physical properties of the new fabric are still being tested, but “from our preliminary results we can say the test have been very, very promising.”
“We expect that the nanowires can capture a bullet,” Discovery News quoted Li as saying.
The former T-shirt can also block other hazards as well, such as cancer-causing ultraviolet light from the sun and even life-threatening neutrons emitted by decaying radioactive materials, said Li.
Covering cars or aircraft with cotton-based boron carbide, instead of the metal used today, would make these vehicles significantly lighter and more fuel-efficient.
The study has been published in the journal Advanced Materials.