The inside story;Technology

16th January 1998 at 00:00
In 1976, fresh out of college with a degree in business studies and a thesis on waterproof clothing, Nick Gill set up shop in the back of his dad's lace factory in Nottingham. He had a hunch that tough outdoor clothing, the exact opposite of the delicate cloth his father made, could be the fabric of the future. He was right - Douglas Gill International now boasts an annual turnover of pound;5 million and is one of the UK's leading suppliers of all-weather sailing and cycling garments.

In the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, an American chemical engineer was launching a material that would prove him right and revolutionise textile technology. Like all great inventions, Gore-Tex was discovered almost by accident. While working for Dupont, Bill Gore had developed a system for insulating electronic wires with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a polymer that is also used to coat non-stick frying pans.

When PTFE was stretched it took on many remarkable properties. Unusually, it kept its strength, but it was also chemically inert, functioned across a wide temperature range (from -100degC to +162degC), and was air permeable but water resistant - all attributes that would have wide applications.

Bill's son Bob marketed this new form of expanded PTFE as Gore-Tex and the family business grew steadily from a laboratory in the basement of their home to the multi-national it is today. The Gore-Tex membrane used in waterproof clothing contains nine billion pores per square inch - 20,000 times smaller than a droplet of water but 700 times larger than a molecule of water vapour - so sweat can evaporate but water cannot penetrate the fabric.

Because it is strong and chemically inert, Gore-Tex is also commonly used in surgery as synthetic blood vessels, for sutures and tissue reconstruction. To date, more than three-and-a-half million people have been implanted with a piece of this remarkable material in addition to the many thousands of sailors, hikers and cyclists who wear it on their backs.

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