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Stanford Engineers Create Cooling Plastic Material

In the future, consumers may be able to combat heat with their clothes, not air conditioners.

Stanford engineers just created a new affordable and plastic-based textile with advanced cooling abilities. If woven into clothing, this new family of fabrics may be a revolutionary thermal management solution for human bodies against warm climates, Science Magazine reported.

“Forty to 60 percent of our body heat is dissipated as infrared radiation when we are sitting in an office,” Stanford electrical engineering professor Shanhui Fan said. “But until now there has been little or no research on designing the thermal radiation characteristics of textiles.”

The new plastic-based textile allows the body to release heat with two methods— cooling via perspiration evaporation, which is what most typical fabrics already do, and an advanced cooling ability, allowing the body’s emitted heat to pass through the plastic material. Compared with wearing cotton apparel in hot weather, consumers can feel close to 4 degrees Fahrenheit cooler with this new textile.

Stanford researchers combined chemistry, nanotechnology and photonics to develop the new material. With this mixture, they were able to provide clear, clingy kitchen plastic wrap, a polyethylene product, with desirable clothing material characteristics, including thermal radiation, air transparency and opaqueness.

Although this item did not make it through the experiment, researchers located another polyethylene variation used in battery making. This special type polyethylene is opaque to visible light, but it also allows body heat to be released by infrared radiation. From there, researchers were able to come up with a base material that provided opaqueness and promoted energy efficiency.

Next, researchers treated the industrial polyethylene with benign chemicals to allow the plastic to breathe similarly to natural fibers. A three-ply version of the material (two sheets of treated polyethylene separated by a cotton mesh) was then turned into a cooling fabric. Tested by researchers, the three-ply material kept the body temperature 3.6 degrees cooler than cotton fabric.

Currently, Stanford researchers are working on adding more cloth-like characteristics, colors and textures to the new three-ply material, which could potentially play a crucial role in future anti-heat apparel.