Just as scientists declared 2016 to be the hottest year on record, scientists at Stanford University revealed they have invented a fabric inspired by kitchen plastic wrap that actively cools your body temperature if woven into the clothing. The new fabric — a form of polyethylene derived from plant material — and its futuristic cooling properties were described last week in the journal Science. The team of researchers hope the low-cost plastic material could become the basis for clothing that cools the wearer, and in effect, reduce our reliance on energy-consuming devices, such as air conditioning.
The Stanford research team engineered the new fabric using nano-technology to create a material that cools down the body by permitting the evaporation of perspiration, which is similar to many existing fabrics currently used today. However, the textile has another cooling mechanism that could potentially revolutionize the clothing industry: the plastic material uniquely allows body heat to escape the fabric in the form of infrared radiation. As a result, the body should feel around 4.8 degrees (2.7 degrees Celsius) cooler than cotton and 3.8 degrees (2.1 degrees Celsius) cooler than commercially available synthetics, which much athletic wear is made of.
According to the study’s lead author Yi Cui, a professor of materials and engineering, this textile is designed for a warmer world — not just because climate change is making temperatures hotter, but because it takes a lot of energy to heat and cool people’s offices and homes.
Existing fabrics already do a good job of taking moisture away from the body, but the issue is more “how do you control the infrared radiation coming out of the human body,” Cui said. That’s where clear clingy plastic kitchen wrap comes in. Plastic wrap — or polyethylene — does a good job of allowing infrared radiation to escape the body.
“40 to 60 percent of our body heat is dissipated as infrared radiation when we are sitting,” said Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford. “But until now there has been little or no research on designing the thermal radiation characteristics of textiles.”
Although the plastic wrap-inspired textile is not yet ready for use in the apparel market, it could potentially pave the way to clothes that can help save energy and cost that would be otherwise spent on air conditioning. The new material may also provide a solution for those who live in hot climates but do not have access to modern cooling methods.
Work remains to be done before this material can be commercially viable, more comfortable and cost-effective at scale. But, as Yi Cui tells The Washington Post, it could be as little as three years before we see garments made from his material hitting main street stores.