Walk around Manhattan in the dead of winter and you’ll notice swarms of puffy-looking marshmallow people kicking around in the snow. Most don those horrendous billowy jackets that contain layer upon layer of insulation, making coordinated movements near impossible.
This problem of keeping warm yet fashionably nimble in frigid climes has persisted for ages. And a startup called Lukla thinks it knows how to solve it: they’re integrating one of the world’s lightest yet incredibly-insulating solid substances — aerogel — into the lining of a jacket, claiming to create the world’s thinnest, warmest, and most breathable coat ever.
Aerogel isn’t new. It’s been around since the 1930s when American scientist Samuel Kistler discovered it by way of a bet with one of his lab partners. So lore goes, Kistler and his colleague made a wager to see who could remove the liquid in a jar of jam without causing the actual structure of the jam to shrink. Kistler won, and by accident invented the world’s lightest material that today holds a Guinness Record for being the world’s least dense solid.
This hard yet brittle gel is mostly air and therefore extremely lightweight, not unlike a sponge. Because it’s mostly air, it’s also very good at repelling heat. As you can see in the image below, it can protect a flower from a strong flame. That means, in theory, a coat made of aerogel would hold the heat from your body inside a coat and keep the cold winter air out really well.
Scientists synthesise aerogels from many different substances, including silicas and carbons. At their most basic, chemists assemble them by throwing a bunch of chemicals together and allowing that mixture to set into a wet gel. They then suck all of the moisture out without disrupting its original structure. The result is a styrofoam-feeling material that is more than 95% air.
By taking a page from NASA’s incorporation of aerogels into highly insulating blankets and spacesuits to protect astronauts from the frigid temperatures in space, Lukla thinks it can create an incredibly toasty yet slim and light cold-weather jacket. They say it can even keep someone warm after being sprayed with freezing liquid nitrogen.
The team named the jacket — intentionally or not — after a NASA space shuttle: Endeavour. In March, 2015, Lukla successfully raised about $US320,000 to fund their project on Kickstarter and are slated to finish production of the jackets later this month.
But will it be a hit? This isn’t the first time apparel companies have tried to incorporate aerogels into clothing. According to Gear Junkie, Burton made an aerogel-based jacket that it sold a few years ago for about $US550, but they pulled it from the market. The ski manufacturer Faction also makes aerogel-insulated jackets and pants, retailing at around $US150-200.
It seems that aerogels haven’t had as much success in the apparel industry as they have in the scientific and commercial building insulation space. Whether ski bums and freezing east coasters decide to latch onto this new high-tech fashion is yet to be seen.
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