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How researchers are developing fabrics that can keep skin 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than cotton

A woman stands near a digital display of an unofficial heat reading at Furnace Creek Visitor Center during a heat wave in Death Valley National Park, California, on July 16, 2023.
A woman stands near a digital display of an unofficial heat reading at Furnace Creek Visitor Center during a heat wave in Death Valley National Park, California.
  • Summers are getting hotter, but some clothing brands are trying to develop cool fabric technology.
  • Brands like Bearbottom and LifeLabs CoolLife offer clothes and accessories that can keep you cool.
  • A lab in China made a fabric that can keep skin temperature 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than cotton.

This summer was one of the hottest ever recorded in many places, leaving millions of people grappling with unbearable heat. 

As we face down a future of warmer summers fueled by the human-caused climate crisis, researchers and manufacturers are finding ways to adapt — specifically with clothes.

It couldn't come soon enough as experts warn that 2023 is shaping up to be not only a record-breaking year for heat but also heat mortality.

Brands including Bearbottom Clothing, LifeLabs, and Mission have products like t-shirts that can cool you down by 3 degrees Fahrenheit and hats that get 23 degrees Fahrenheit cooler when wet.

Here's a look at the new future of cool fabric.

How brands are making clothes that keep you cool

Bearbottom Clothing offers clothes made from recycled polyester, nylon, and sometimes spandex, that has been treated with graphene, a carbon compound that is great at conducting heat.

That characteristic means it can wick body moisture and heat away from wearers, said Bearbottom founder and CEO Robert Felder.

A person wearing Bearbottom clothing that keeps body temperature cooler.
Bearbottom Clothing's Cabana Matching Set, pictured here in Poppy, is made from fabric treated with graphene, a carbon compound that can conduct heat away from the body.

Graphene treatments, like what Bearbottom uses, coat existing materials like polyester and nylon in graphene. Other manufacturers integrate graphene threads right into their clothes. But graphene isn't the only way to produce cooling fabric.

LifeLab's CoolLife products use polyethylene fabric that allows body heat to escape more effectively than other materials, cooling the wearer's temperature by up to 3 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the company's website.

NanoStitch has similar results, also using customized fabrics made from Lycra® fiber and super-micro polyamide yarn that make the material extremely light and breathable, helping body heat radiate away through its clothing, according to its website.

The products coming out of Mission right now might be the most impressive. Mission harnesses the power of evaporation through a technology called HydroActive™ in order to cool the item up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit below average body temperature.

To get the cooling effect, a wearer must wet the article of clothing (or a hat, cooling cloth, etc), then wring it out and put it on. The damp cloth facilitates more rapid evaporation, cooling the wearer down significantly.

But perhaps the most promising fabric technology, yet to come, can be found in a research lab in China.

The award-winning metafabric that can cool skin temperature by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit

The "metafabric" that scientist Guangming Tao and his research team developed won them multiple awards in 2021, including the Candidate Projects of China Issues Top 10 Scientific Advances of 2021.

"Wearing this metafabric is like carrying a mirror and an air conditioner at the same time," said Tao, professor at the Wuhan National Laboratory for Optoelectronics and the School of Materials Science and Engineering in China.

The mirror-like component of the fabric deflects the sun's rays, while the breathable fabric exchanges human body heat for cooler air, acting in a similar way to an air conditioner, Tao said.

The result? People can feel cooler and more comfortable, even when temperatures are sky-high. Since publishing a paper on the fabric in 2021, Tao's team has been working on manufacturing the fabric commercially.

To see the cooling fabric's effect, researchers recruited a graduate student to wear a unique shirt. One half was made from traditional cotton fabric, while the other half was made from the metafabric.

The student sat in the sun for an hour, then researchers recorded the skin temperature on both sides of the student's body.

Infrared image of a person wearing super-cooling metafabric on their left side, which is much cooler than their right side, which is wearing cotton.
An infrared image of the student shows the half wearing the metafabric (in blue on the right) is significantly cooler than the half wearing commercial cotton (in yellow-ish green on the left).

The temperature of the student's skin wearing the side with the metafabric was 4.8 degrees Celsius, or about 9 degrees Fahrenheit, cooler than the side covered in cotton.

This isn't the first cooling fabric to be developed, but other fabrics have been extremely thin and fragile. This fabric has a similar thickness to other commercial fabrics used in clothing, making it more practical for real-word use, Tao said.

"Our metafabric enables zero-energy-input cooling, while it feels almost the same as conventional clothing," Tao added.

Athletes, construction workers, soldiers, and others could benefit from wearing the cooling fabric, Tao said. He also foresees it being used for tents, canopies, car covers, and other applications where keeping cool is essential.

Tao said he and his team are currently working with commercial contacts to figure out how to produce the metafabric at commercial scales for mass distribution.

"I hope that metafabric will enter our daily lives as soon as possible," he said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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