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Scientists invented a fabric that knows whether to cool you down or warm you up

Published Feb 10th, 2019 2:45PM EST
heat regulating fabric
Image: Faye Levine, University of Maryland

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Dressing in layers is usually the easiest way to ensure that you won’t be uncomfortable at any point in the day. If things get too hot, just shed a layer and you’re good, and if you get chilly again, just slip it back on. But what if you didn’t have to do that at all? What if your clothing could tell if you were too hot or too cool and adjust accordingly?

That’s exactly what researchers from the University of Maryland seem to have accomplished with an incredibly unique kind of new fabric that actually changes depending on your body temperature.

The invention, which is described in a new research paper published in Science, actively manages the amount of infrared radiation (that’s just heat) that passes through it. The fabric is capable of this remarkable feat thanks to metal-coated strands that react to the amount of heat passing by them.

The strands are made up of two different types of material, neither of which you’ll find in nature. One of the thread materials absorbs moisture while the other repels it. This might sound like a bad idea, but it actually gives the fabric some very unique properties.

When the fabric is close to skin that is sweating, the dual-action threads begin to warp from the moisture. As the strands change shape, it allows more heat to pass through the layer of fabric while also altering the properties of the coating itself, promoting the escape of infrared radiation and rapidly cooling the skin. The opposite is then also true when the fabric cools down, with moisture evaporating from the skin and threads, and the fabric returns to its original, warmer configuration.

“The human body is a perfect radiator. It gives off heat quickly,” co-author Min Ouyang said in a statement. “For all of history, the only way to regulate the radiator has been to take clothes off or put clothes on. But this fabric is a true bidirectional regulator.”

It will still be a while before such fabric makes its way into consumer items, but the research shows a lot of promise, and it might not be too long before our clothing can monitor our comfort without us doing a thing.