Researchers are hoping you’ll cool down with this new smart fabric instead of air conditioning

Science Friday
Clothing on laundry line

Would you clothe yourself in plastic kitchen wrap to stay cool on a blazing summer day?

Researchers at Stanford University are hoping so — they’ve designed a new polyethylene-based fabric that’s meant to lower its wearer's body temperature by almost four degrees. The invention isn’t just for convenience: If more of our bodies’ thermal radiation can escape through our clothes, we might be less likely to flip a switch to cool down.  

“The idea is that normal clothes — your shorts, tank tops — can make you hot when it’s really hot out because they trap infrared heat,” says science journalist Alex Ossola. “So this material has pores that will release that heat. Plus, there are other types of holes in it that will wick the moisture away from your body, cooling you off.”

What sets the material apart from other “smart fabrics” that promise to wick moisture and heat is its composition and ready availability — the polyethylene used is already mass-produced as plastic kitchen wrap, and used in batteries to keep them from shorting. To transform it into a breathable cloth, researchers perforated the material with a microneedle and doused it in polydopamine to make it water-permeable (for improved moisture wicking). To strengthen it and make it feel more like clothing you can find in stores, they also sandwiched some cotton mesh between two layers of the material.

Researchers still have some pressing questions to answer, like how comfortable the fabric is when you’re wearing it. But Ossola says we could be wearing the end result within three to five years. And if it passes muster, the cloth could keep us from reaching for the AC, at least until the midday heat surge. It’s all part of a trend towards wearable technology that can influence human behaviors — and this fabric doesn’t need recharging. If, that is, a plastic shirt can make it past the court of public opinion.

“If it’s 85 degrees, four degrees is going to make a big difference,” Ossola says. “But if it's 105 with 100 percent humidity, I'm not really sure that the wicking is going to do a whole lot of good. The researchers touted this from the perspective of, if it prevents us from turning on the AC or saves a little bit of energy, this could be a really good solution for … people in hot places,” Ossola says.

And to be clear, the fabric is not as see-through as plastic wrap, Ossola says. “So you don’t have to worry about that.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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