Researchers develop fabric that automatically warms or cools its wearer

The clothing could become a “secondary skin” that helps reduce the costs of heating and cooling.

By Peter Holley / The Washington Post

Researchers from the University of Maryland say they have created a fabric that responds to its wearer, regulating the amount of heat that passes through the material.

If the wearer is sweating on a hot summer day, for example, the fabric allows heat to escape. But when the temperature is cooler and the air drier, the fabric becomes more compact, retaining heat from the wearer’s body, researchers say. The researchers’ paper, “Dynamic gating of infrared radiation in a textile,” was published in the journal Science.

YuHuang Wang — a U-Md. professor of chemistry and biochemistry who co-wrote the study — said he envisions a time in the not-so-distant future when clothing becomes a “secondary skin” that helps people save energy and reduce the costs of air conditioning and heating by relying on them less intensely or shut them off entirely.

“This technology would allow you to regulate your local environment, and that would give people a much wider tolerability for the heating and cooling conditions inside a building,” Wang said.

“How much could you get people to change their habits,” he said, referring to using clothing to offset energy costs, “that’s certainly an additional challenge.”

Three-quarters of homes in the United States have air conditioners, which use about 6 percent of all electricity produced in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. In addition to costing homeowners $29 billion annually, air conditioners release about 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, the agency reports.

The research also offers a potential solution to another long-standing challenge, one that has inspired countless Inspector Gadget-like patents over the years: creating clothing that actively cools the wearer.

In 2015, Finnish researchers, inspired by the design of the human cardiovascular system, developed “a way of adding a plastic film containing microscopic channels filled with liquid to jackets and other clothes,” according to the Daily Mail.

By filling the clothing with liquid, the clothing could be cooled or provide insulation, the paper reported.

In Japan, researchers looking for novel solutions to energy shortages unveiled air-conditioned garments equipped with small battery-powered fans that could reportedly provide cooling air for up to 11 hours at a time, according to The Telegraph.

The fabric created by the U-Md. researchers doesn’t rely on batteries or liquid.

It starts with a specially engineered yarn coated with a conductive metal. When conditions are warm and humid — such as when the wearer is working out and sweating — the strands of yarn activate the coating, which in turn warps the strands of yarn, bringing them closer together. Once that happens, researchers say, pores in the fabric open, allowing trapped heat to escape. When conditions are cold, however, the process is reversed and heat remains close to the body.

To explain where the concept for the fabric originated, Wang compares the human body to an engine — one that coverts food energy to heat.

“If we are completely naked, our body is a perfect radiator that gives off heat so rapidly,” he said. “Most of our clothing is actually a good radiator, but we don’t control that radiator. We wanted to create a mechanism to control the heat being released by the body.”

Though the fabric has been developing for about five years, Wang said researchers are just beginning the process of turning it into a commercial product, most probably as a type of athletic wear initially. He said the fabric can be dyed, knitted and washed, offering the same durability as other commercial fabrics. Wang said he believes this clothing could have applications for people beyond cyclists and skiers.

“The performance may be effective for babies who need constant temperatures or perhaps the elderly or people who are sick,” he said.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Yansi De La Cruz molds a cheese mixture into bone shapes at Himalayan Dog Chew on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Give a dog a bone? How about a hard cheese chew from Arlington instead!

Launched from a kitchen table in 2003, Himalayan Pet Supply now employs 160 workers at its new Arlington factory.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Washington minimum wage to top $16 an hour next year

Meanwhile, some salaried workers and rideshare drivers could see their earnings rise from other state-required adjustments.

Inside the new Boeing 737 simulator at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
New Boeing 737 simulator takes ‘flight’ in Mukilteo

Pilots can test their flying skills or up their game at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo.

An Amazon worker transfers and organizes items at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amazon cuts ribbon on colossal $355M fulfillment center in Arlington

At 2.8 million square feet, the facility is the largest of its kind in Washington. It can hold 40 million “units” of inventory.

A computer rendering of the North Creek Commerce Center industrial park in development at 18712 Bothell-Everett Highway. (Kidder Mathews)
Developer breaks ground on new Bothell industrial park

The North Creek Commerce Center on Bothell Everett Highway will provide warehouse and office space in three buildings.

Dan Bates / The Herald
Funko president, Brian Mariotti is excited about the growth that has led his company to need a 62,000 square foot facility in Lynnwood.
Photo Taken: 102312
Former Funko CEO resigns from the Everett company

Brian Mariotti resigned Sept. 1, six weeks after announcing he was taking a six-month sabbatical from the company.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Paper or plastic? Snohomish County may require businesses to take cash

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed an ordinance to ban cashless sales under $200. He hopes cities will follow suit.

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Grant aids apprenticeship program in Mukilteo and elsewhere

A $5.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant will boost apprenticeships for special education teachers and nurses.

Peoples Bank is placing piggy banks with $30 around Washington starting Aug. 1.
(Peoples Bank)
Peoples Bank grant program seeks proposals from nonprofits

Peoples Bank offers up to $35,000 in Impact Grants aimed at helping communities. Applications due Sept. 15.

Workers build the first all-electric commuter plane, the Eviation Alice, at Eviation's plant on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in Arlington, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Arlington’s Eviation selects Seattle firm to configure production plane

TLG Aerospace chosen to configure Eviation Aircraft’s all-electric commuter plane for mass production.

Orca Mobility designer Mike Lowell, left, and CEO Bill Messing at their office on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Granite Falls, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Could a Granite Falls startup’s three-wheeler revolutionize delivery?

Orca Mobility’s battery-powered, three-wheel truck is built on a motorcycle frame. Now, they aim to make it self-driving.

Members of Gravitics' team and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen stand in front of a mockup of a space module interior on Thursday, August 17, 2023 at Gravitics' Marysville facility. Left to right: Mark Tiner, government affairs representative; Jiral Shah, business development; U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen; Mike DeRosa, marketing; Scott Macklin, lead engineer. (Gravitics.)
Marysville startup prepares for space — the financial frontier

Gravitics is building space station module prototypes to one day house space travelers and researchers.