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The Warmth-Trapping Secret of Polar Bear Fur

Ask any polar bear: white is hot.

Three engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have come up with a new, synthetic polar fleece that mimics a polar bear’s heat-retaining fur. It took scientists 80 years to develop but the textile absorbs light, conducts it down to the wearer’s skin then retains the warmth through unthinkably frigid temperatures, just like the Arctic apex predator.  

What eluded scientists for so long was the role sunlight played in keeping the bears and other polar animals toasty. Their fur is a natural fiberoptic that can effectively absorb and transmit solar radiation to the bear’s body. The bear’s underlayer of skin is black, making it hyper heat absorbent. The bear’s white fur keeps the warmth from escaping once it seeps down.

The textile acts as a thick blanket that warms up then traps the warmth next to the skin. It is bilayer, with a top layer composed of threads that conduct light down to the layer underneath. That layer is made of nylon and coated with a dark material called PEDOT, a conductive polymer, that warms efficiently.

Wesley Viola, who developed the fabric at UMass, noted its double potential: it works indoors in the right artificial light to heat the body as well as out in the sunshine. “By focusing energy resources on the ‘personal climate,’ around the body, this approach could be far more sustainable than the status quo,” he said.

Outerwear made of the new textile is said to be 30 percent lighter weight than the same garment made of cotton but can keep the wearer comfortable down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit less than the cotton item, as long as the environment is sunny or in an adequately lit interior. Commercial manufacturers have already expressed interest in the new product.