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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stain-Resistant Trousers Latest in Nanotechnology Revolution

WASHINGTON -- Scientists are wrestling with individual atoms to develop molecule-sized computers, tiny cancer-fighting robots that travel the bloodstream -- and stain-resistant trousers.

Nanotechnology -- the science of manipulating materials billionths of a meter wide -- has emerged as a promising new field that could lead to stunning advances in years to come. Proponents claim that nanotech-derived products may someday cure disease, slow the aging process and eliminate pollution.

But for now, the human race will have to settle for tennis balls that keep their bounce longer, flat-panel displays that shine brighter, and wrinkle-free khaki slacks that resist coffee stains.

"People are saying, 'Geez, this isn't Star Trek yet, this is just pants that don't stain,' but you've got to start somewhere," said Howard Lovy, an editor at nanotech industry journal Small Times. "I'm wearing nano-pants as we speak."

Those stain-resistant pants and bouncy tennis balls have their advantages thanks to a fundamental principle of small science: Different scales lead to different results. Just as a silver necklace may sparkle against your skin but tiny silver particles in your bloodstream will turn your skin blue, common substances like sunscreen and rubber take on entirely different characteristics when assembled at a molecular level.

Sunscreen makers have found that zinc oxide -- the dense white cream lifeguards put on their noses -- turns transparent and silky when made from smaller particles, which cover the skin more thoroughly and do not reflect light.

Probably the most visible nanotech product to date are the stain- and wrinkle-resistant slacks developed by Greensboro, North Carolina-based Nano-Tex LLC and sold by Eddie Bauer, Lee Jeans and several other retailers.

Billions of tiny whiskers create a thin cushion of air above the cotton fabric, smoothing out wrinkles and allowing liquids to bead up and roll off without a trace.

The "nano-care" pants have sold well since they were first introduced in 2001, an Eddie Bauer spokeswoman said, even though they cost $10 more than ordinary khakis.