This new synthetic fabric could keep you cooler than any other material

Nanope-textileTop: Yi Cui Group/Stanford University / Bottom: James Loomis / University of AucklandCompare the skin-like texture of nanoPE (top) to cotton (middle) and polyester (bottom).

Plastic might not seem like the ideal fabric to wear when you’re on a sweaty hike, but a few Stanford researchers would disagree.

A team of eight researchers have developed a new kind of refined plastic textile, which they dubbed nanoporous polyethylene (nanoPE), that allows more of your body’s heat to escape than any other fabric.

The researchers, who published their findings on the material in Science, explain that the tiny polyethylene fibres (that’s a type of plastic) used in the material leave spaces between them that are only 50 to 1000 nanometres in diameter — much smaller than other fabrics. The openings are densely distributed throughout the fabric, however, so overall more infrared heat can pass through without getting trapped.

The size and distribution of the holes resemble human pores, making the fabric almost transparent to infrared radiation (what we experience as heat). While the fabric appears opaque to the human eye, it might feel like you’re wearing nothing.

Most of the traditional clothing we wear cools us down by helping sweat and moisture evaporate faster. Organic fabrics, like cotton, absorb sweat, which evaporates on the surface to create a cooling effect. Wools have a “wicking” effect, which draws moisture away from your skin towards the surface, thereby cooling you faster. But all of those fabrics still keep in a lot of infrared radiation (which is why you feel warmer when wearing clothes).

The Stanford researchers tested the nanoPE material by wrapping it around a device that mimicked a human body on a hot day. They found that the temperature of the artificial skin rose only 0.8 degrees Celsius, from 33.5 degrees to 34.3 degrees (92.3 degrees to 93.74 degrees Fahrenheit). When wrapped in cotton, however, the temperature rose to 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Though the material sounds promising, nanoPE is still a ways from the market, Yi Cui, one of the principal researchers, told the Washington Post. The fabric developed by the researchers was an experimental flat sheet, which would feel unnatural against the skin. So the team plans to develop a version that can be used to make regular clothes but keeps the same cooling properties.

If the researchers can successfully develop the fabric for clothing, it also has the potential to be used in tents, buildings and vehicles to allow for more ventilation and less need for air conditioning or fans.

Cui tells the Washington Post that fabric research could be finished a year from now, but bringing an actual product to market might take a couple more years.

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