Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

A space-age insert for shoes got its start when a graduate student with smelly feet took off her shoes and another tapped into his aerospace experience to solve the problem. The result was Zorpads, shoe inserts that use an extremely porous activated carbon cloth to absorb odor. The inserts also work in gym bags, trash cans, and other foul-smelling places.

Activated carbons are used in all crewed spacecraft to condition the atmosphere for breathing and for odor control; for example, in toilet filters. Spacecraft cabins are relatively small, enclosed spaces with equipment and people releasing a host of contaminants that must be mitigated. Activated carbons are often part of standard filtration systems, both on Earth and in space. In most of its applications, NASA uses granular activated carbons, usually made from coconut shells brought to very high temperatures without oxygen to create a char — a process known as pyrolysis.

In 2015, NASA compared a few different cloths to several granular activated carbon formulations as part of research into removing contaminants called siloxanes from the International Space Station (ISS). Used in plastics, like printed circuit boards, siloxanes are released into the atmosphere through offgassing.

In filtration systems, activated carbon cloth can allow atmosphere to pass more easily at high flow rates than packed granular carbon. The NASA team wanted to know if multiple layers of activated carbon cloth, one on top of another, could absorb and filter siloxanes as well as granular carbon without causing more flow resistance. For that application, the granular carbon outperformed the cloths and became NASA’s choice for use aboard the ISS. But the cloth Zorpads would use was still shown to be extremely absorbent, making it ideal in other situations including as dressing for wounds. And now feet, too.

The makers of Zorpads shoe inserts used NASA’s research into activated carbon cloth to determine that its filtering properties were what they were looking for and began developing their odor-eliminating product around it. (Credit: Zorpads)

Before attending Harvard Business School, where he and four other classmates developed Zorpads as part of an assignment, Taylor Wiegele had worked with activated carbons during stints at the water-purifying company Brita and at SpaceX, where he consulted with NASA engineers on spacecraft atmosphere purification. “I came across a number of really interesting materials and this one kept staying in my mind,” Wiegele said.

“Later, when I started to develop the shoe insert, I realized this was the perfect material for that application,” he said. “NASA had done a lot of testing on it and those results helped us identify it as the right material from the outset.”

To the business school study group’s surprise, the project won accolades. Wiegele and one of the classmates, Sierra Smith, incorporated the company in New York in 2016 and went on to win a $150,000 investment on “Shark Tank,” the business reality TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors.

The activated carbon cloth that Zorpads uses is unique in that it is made from a viscose rayon material derived from wood pulp. Unlike some activated carbon cloths, which are created by applying carbon to a non-carbon cloth, this material is 100% carbon.

Wiegele and Smith currently both hold full-time jobs elsewhere but they still promote and improve on Zorpads as they can. They have developed more effective adhesion to keep the inserts in shoes, for instance, and determined better recommendations for where to place the patches in different types of shoes.

Read this article, along with other NASA Spin-Offs, at NASA.gov .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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