MADMEC champion designs T-shirt “temporary tattoos”

Do you ever receive a free T-shirt at an event that you never end up wearing? What about a music or sports-themed shirt that you only wear once and then lose interest in? These one-off T-shirts, along with the waste and pollution they contribute to, are unfortunately a common part of our society.

But what if there was a way to change the designs on shirts after each use? The winners of this year’s MADMEC competition have developed biodegradable “temporary tattoos” for T-shirts, aiming to make one-wear clothing more sustainable.

The winning team, known as Me-Shirts, found their inspiration from the MADMEC event itself, which traditionally creates a different T-shirt each year.

“If you think about all the textile waste that’s generated by these shirts, it’s incredible,” mentioned Isabella Caruso, a team member and PhD candidate, during the winning presentation. “The main markets we are targeting are one-time T-shirts and custom T-shirts.”

The scale of the problem is significant. According to the team, the custom T-shirt market is valued at $4.3 billion. This figure does not account for trends like fast fashion, which contribute to the annual production of 17 million tons of textile waste.

“Our proposed solution is a temporary shirt tattoo made from biodegradable, non-toxic materials,” explained Caruso. “We wanted designs that can be fully removed through washing, so that you can wear your T-shirt for your one-time event and then have a nice white T-shirt again afterwards.”

The team’s scalable design process combines three simple ingredients: potato starch, glycerin, and water. The design can be temporarily imprinted on the shirt through ironing.

The Me-Shirt team, who secured a $10,000 cash prize, plans to continue exploring material combinations to make the design more flexible and easier for individuals to apply at home. Future iterations may even empower users to choose whether the design remains on the shirt during washing based on the settings of the washing machine.

Organized by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), the competition was the culmination of team projects that began in the fall and included a series of design challenges throughout the semester. Each team received assistance, access to equipment and labs, and up to $1,000 in funding to construct and test their prototypes.

“The primary goal is for students to gain confidence in their ability to design and build devices and platforms that differ from their usual experiences,” said Mike Tarkanian, a senior lecturer in DMSE and coordinator of MADMEC. “If it’s a deviation from their normal research and coursework activities, that’s a win in my opinion, as it helps make them better engineers.”

The second-place prize of $6,000 was awarded to Alkalyne, a company developing a carbon-neutral polymer for petrochemical production. They are exploring methods to use electricity and inorganic carbon to generate a high-energy hydrocarbon precursor. If developed using renewable energy, this approach could achieve carbon-negative petrochemical production.

“A lot of our research, as well as research at MIT in general, focuses on sustainability. We wanted to explore an angle that we believe holds promise but hasn’t been investigated enough,” explained Christopher Mallia, a PhD candidate.

The third-place prize was given to Microbeco, who are investigating the use of microbial fuel cells for continuous water quality monitoring. While microbes have been proposed as a means of detecting and measuring contaminants in water for many years, the varying responses of microbes to different contaminants have hindered the effectiveness of this approach.

To overcome this problem, the team is working towards isolating microbial strains that consistently respond to specific contaminants.

Overall, Tarkanian regards this year’s program as a success not only for the final results presented at the competition, but also for the experiential learning the students gained through the use of equipment such as laser cutters, 3D printers, and soldering irons. Many participants expressed that they had never used such equipment before. They also noted that the program brought their coursework to life by enabling them to build physical prototypes.

“It was a chance to try something new by applying my skills in a different environment,” said Zachary Adams, a PhD candidate. “I could see many of the concepts I learn in my classes coming to life through this work.”