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Nike’s Conjured Up High-Tech Apparel Fit for a…Fireman?

A patent application filed by Nike in Oct. 2016 points to how the athletic apparel company is thinking about wearable tech, smart clothing and garments to deliver advanced performance properties.

Though the patent application document notes that the innovation could be applicable for athletes, Nike’s core customer base, it added that the proposed garment in question could be useful for military, first responders and firemen.

Titled “Apparel Thermo-Regulatory System,” inventors Hoonjoo Lee—at the time Nike’s director of innovation—and senior designer Matthew Nordstrom came up with a system for apparel, compatible with tops and bottoms, that can help to regulate the wearer’s body temperature and speed athletes’ post-training recovery. The system revolves around an array of thermoelectric modules (TEMs), which are, in the most basic terms, heat pumps that use electrical energy to transfer heat from the cold side of the module to the hot side, or vice versa, which means they can provide either a warming or cooling effect as needed. The arrays can take different shapes as dictated by things like drape, fabric and location on the body. According to the patent application, the TEM arrays could be integrated “without significantly compromising the weight” of the garment.

Though TEMs usually rely on a fan to mitigate the heat generated on the hot side of the module, building a fan into a garment isn’t terribly practical. Instead, the inventors envision leveraging the wearer’s sweat or perspiration to cool both the module—and the wearer. In essence, the moisture would be channeled toward the TEM, whose own heat would cause the sweat or perspiration to evaporate more quickly, thus getting the wearer cooler more rapidly than with a regular garment. Nike envisions TEM arrays positioned near parts of the body that are naturally prone to more sweat, such as the quadriceps or the chest, and hydrophilic “channels” direct moisture toward the arrays.

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The Nike patent application notes that the TEM arrays would function as a removable component that can be inserted into a “flexible” frame prior to wearing and removed before laundering. The wearer would also be able to program the TEM using a mobile app to set maximum and minimum temperatures for cooling and heating, or set a cycle time when the module heats and/or cools at preprogramed intervals.

There could be two separate use cases at play, involving long-term and short-term wear. A professional, like a firefighter or police officer, would put on the high-tech apparel and go about his or her business, but Nike also thinks an athlete might don the garment just for the cool-down “recovery” period post-workout.

As with many patent applications, there’s no guarantee this innovation will ever see the light of day. However, Nike has clearly been thinking about how to bring advanced technology into the performance apparel sector in a way that offers clear benefits without being burdensome.