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Powered Smart Fabrics Could Keep Wearers Warm in Cold Climates

Protective clothing, while boasting its own benefits, has typically been cumbersome and sweat-inducing in periods of exertion, but a team of scientists thinks a new high-tech powered fabric could change all of that—particularly for soldiers who are much in need of this type of gear.

This week, scientists from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center presented their work on the fabric at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 254th National Meeting & Exposition in Washington. The scientists demonstrated how high-tech fabrics for soldiers that provide warmth through electrical conductivity and can capture sweat could be used in commercial clothing down the line too.

Today, much of the Army’s cold-weather hand accessories are outdated, prompting soldiers to buy things like winter gloves at standard clothing stores. But what they’re met with are gloves that are often not suitable to prevent numbness in frigid climes or keep soldiers battle-ready in cold environments.

“That’s problematic if soldiers have to operate weapons as soon as they land,” said Dr. Paola D’Angelo, from the experiment’s Army team. “So we want to pursue this fundamental research to see if we can modify hand wear for that extreme cold weather.”

With the help of Dr. Yi Cui from Stanford University, the scientists produced electricity with very fine silver nanowires and placed them on cotton, causing the fabrics to heat up and provide warmth. Dr. D’Angelo’s team is currently testing this silver nanowire approach for military uniform fabrics, including cotton/nylon blends and polyester. The Army team found that applying three volts to one-inch by one-inch test swatches of these fabrics could increase the temperature to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 60 seconds. If these powered fabrics are used in soldiers’ uniforms, soldiers can control the voltage and heating capabilities of the fabric.

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Sweat absorbance is another feature of the fabric. The scientists are placing a layer of sweat-absorbing hydrogel particles to the fabric, which could keep soldiers more dry and comfortable during missions. Once they return to their base, soldiers can release uniform sweat by hanging them up to dry in warmer indoor air.

Since the silver nanowires in the fabrics withstand frequent laundering and wear, the team is researching how the silver mesh and hydrogel work together. What’s more, the team is also considering different power sources for the fabric, since batteries could be too heavy for soldiers’ uniforms.

Once Dr. D’Angelo and her team use the fabric for gloves, they aim to extend the technology to other apparel for the chest and legs for armed forces, and then to other consumer clothing in the future.