A new fabric created by a team of US scientists could be used to cool or warm up its wearers depending on how hot, cold or sweaty they are.
The material has the potential to create clothing for sports from running to alpine skiing, which adapts and keeps people the ideal temperature.
When conditions are warm and moist, the fabric allows heat to pass out, and when conditions become cooler and drier it reduces the heat that escapes.
“The human body is a perfect radiator. It gives off heat quickly,” said Professor Min Ouyang, a physicist at the University of Maryland.
“For all of history, the only way to regulate the radiator has been to take clothes off or put clothes on.”
When bodies radiate heat, the energy is normally trapped by textiles, keeping people warm in cold temperatures.
While some materials have been designed to keep people cool by reflecting sunlight or allowing heat to pass through them, there are none that adapt to the surrounding environment and actively shed this energy from the body.
The scientists behind the creation used specially engineered yarn strands coated with metal, which compact in hot, humid conditions.
Not only does this make the fabric more breathable, it also forces it to emit heat into its surroundings.
When the environment is cool and dry, on the other hand, the fibres expand, reducing the gaps between them and preventing heat from escaping.
In tests, Professor Ouyang and his colleagues found that heat radiation changed by around a third when the surrounding humidity was altered.
According to the scientists, their fabric can be produced, dyed and washed just like other materials used in sportswear manufacture.
“This pioneering work provides an exciting new switchable characteristic for comfort-adjusting clothing,” said Professor Ray Baughman, a chemist at the University of Texas who was not involved in the study.
“Textiles were known that increase porosity in response to sweat or increasing temperature, as well as textiles that transmit the infrared radiation associated with body temperatures.
“However, no one before had found a way to switch both the porosity and infrared transparency of a textile so as to provide increased comfort in response to environmental conditions.”
The findings were published in the journal Science.
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