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New fabric self-cools or self-insulates depending on conditions

Imagine wearing a pair of running pants that helped keep you cool at the gym or thermal underwear in the winter that automatically sensed when body heat was being lost. What if there was a fabric that could do both?

Scientists from the University of Maryland have developed the first fabric of its kind that automatically self-cools or self-insulates depending on the environment.

The fabric is able to trap or release heat thanks to special fibers coated with a conductive metal.

If it’s hot out and you’re working up a sweat, the fabric interacts or “gates” infrared radiation and allows heat to pass through it. If the weather is cold and dry, the fabric traps heat.

“This is the first technology that allows us to dynamically gate infrared radiation,” said YuHuang Wang, one of the scientists who helped design the fabric.

The new fabric was detailed in a study published in the journal Science.

First, the researchers created a yarn made up of synthetic fibers that absorb and repel water which allows the strands to warp or expand depending on the humidity. Next, the team coated the yarn with carbon nanotubes, a conductive metal.

The yarn reacts with the coating under certain conditions and can change the electromagnetic properties of the carbon nanotubes.

“When the fibers are brought closer together, the radiation they interact with changes. In clothing, that means the fabric interacts with the heat radiating from the human body,” said Wang.

Wang explained that the fibers and coating work sort of like radio antennae that work to find the right frequency.

In this way, the fabric is continuously “in tune” with its environment and can immediately sense when heat is rising or being lost.

“The human body is a perfect radiator. It gives off heat quickly,” said Min Ouyang, a corresponding author of the study. “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 be sometime before self-cooling/insulating workout gear hits the market, as the researchers say more studies are needed to test the fabric, but the material has many exciting implications for clothing and textiles.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Faye Levine, University of Maryland

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