Researchers at Stanford have engineered a new plastic-based material that can be woven into clothing that cools the wearer. The low-cost fabric cools the human body more efficiently than any natural or synthetic options currently available. Garments made from the fabric would reduce the need for air conditioning and keep people cool in hot regions where there might not be access to air conditioning at all. By shifting the focus from cooling a building to directly cooling the person inside, vast amounts of energy and money could potentially be saved. With 2016 already the hottest year on record for the planet, demand for clothing that cools the wearer will likely grow.
The new material works by discharging heat in two ways: letting perspiration evaporate through it and, more remarkably, by allowing heat’s infrared radiation to pass through it. The combined effect can cool the wearer nearly 4 degrees more than cotton clothing can. Infrared radiation is the normally invisible wavelength of light that’s visible in the dark through night-vision goggles. Around half of our body heat takes the form of infrared radiation, which a blanket traps to keep us warm. To develop their cooling textile, the Stanford researchers utilized nanotechnology, photonics and chemistry to give polyethylene (the same kind of plastic used as kitchen wrap) new characteristics, allowing thermal radiation and steam to pass through it. The challenge was making the material transparent to infrared radiation, yet opaque to light. It required modifying the polyethylene by treating it with benign chemicals so that it van breathe like a natural fiber while letting steam molecules evaporate through its nanopores.
Of course, no one wants to wear kitchen wrap in hot weather, so to make the new material more comfortably fabric-like, they made it three-ply, with a middle layer of cotton mesh, rendering it stronger as well. Initial tests showed the fabric to keep skin temperature 3.6 F cooler. However, the new fabric isn’t quite “cool” enough for the fashion world as yet. That is to say, it’s pretty ugly. Researchers are working on making it in different colors and cloth-like textures so that it can more readily be used for producing clothing that better suits the fashion-conscious consumer. Of course, we can’t imagine Nick Graham menswear being any cooler than it is. Nonetheless, here’s a brief video look at how the new fabric works.