In a groundbreaking development, three engineers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst have successfully created a synthetic fabric that emulates the properties of polar bear fur, concluding an 80-year-long quest to develop such a textile.
The recent publication of their findings in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces marks a significant step forward in textile innovation, with potential applications in a variety of commercially available products.
Polar bears are known for their ability to withstand the brutally cold temperatures of the Arctic, often as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit. These creatures have numerous adaptations that enable them to thrive in such harsh conditions, but scientists have been particularly intrigued by the role their fur plays in maintaining warmth. Since the 1940s, researchers have been investigating how polar bear fur keeps them warm and how to replicate its properties in a synthetic material.
Contrary to popular belief, insulation isn’t the only way to stay warm in freezing weather. Over the past few decades, it has been discovered that many polar animals, including polar bears, actively utilize sunlight to maintain their body temperature. Polar bear fur is a prime example of this phenomenon, as it is incredibly effective at transmitting solar radiation towards the bears’ skin.
Trisha L. Andrew is the paper’s senior author and an associate professor of Chemistry at UMass Amherst. She explains that polar bear fur serves as a natural fiber optic, conducting sunlight down to their black skin, which then absorbs the light and warms the bear. Furthermore, the fur is remarkably efficient at preventing the heat from escaping, creating a self-warming blanket that retains warmth close to the skin.
Professor Andrew and her team have developed a bilayer fabric that mimics these properties. The fabric’s top layer consists of threads designed to conduct visible light down to the lower layer, which is made of nylon and coated with a dark material called PEDOT.
Like polar bears’ skin, PEDOT warms efficiently. As a result, a jacket made from this material is 30 percent lighter than a cotton counterpart, yet it can keep the wearer comfortable at temperatures 10 degrees Celsius colder, provided that there is sunlight or sufficient indoor lighting.
Study lead author Wesley Viola, who works at Andrew’s startup Soliyarn, LLC, explained the potential sustainability benefits of this innovative fabric.
“Space heating consumes huge amounts of energy that is mostly fossil fuel-derived,” said Viola. “While our textile really shines as outerwear on sunny days, the light-heat trapping structure works efficiently enough to imagine using existing indoor lighting to directly heat the body. By focusing energy resources on the ‘personal climate’ around the body, this approach could be far more sustainable than the status quo.”
With support from the National Science Foundation, the research is already being applied in real-world contexts. Soliyarn has initiated production of the PEDOT-coated cloth, paving the way for an array of sustainable and energy-efficient products that harness the unique properties of polar bear fur.
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are large carnivorous mammals that inhabit the Arctic regions, primarily found in countries like Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway, and the United States (Alaska). They are well-adapted to survive in the harsh, cold environments of the Arctic, displaying several unique characteristics and behaviors.
Polar bears are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are protected under various national and international laws and agreements. Conservation efforts focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting their habitats, and minimizing human-polar bear conflicts.