The Touch, the Feel of Plastic
Would you clothe yourself in plastic kitchen wrap to stay cool on a blazing summer day?
Researchers at Stanford University are hoping so — they’ve designed a new polyethylene-based fabric that’s meant to lower its wearer’s body temperature by almost four degrees. The invention isn’t just for convenience: If more of our bodies’ thermal radiation can escape through our clothes, we might be less likely to flip a switch to cool down.
“The idea is that normal clothes — your shorts, tank tops — can make you hot when it’s really hot out because they trap infrared heat,” says science journalist Alex Ossola. “So this material has pores that will release that heat. Plus, there are other types of holes in it that will wick the moisture away from your body, cooling you off.”
What sets the material apart from other “smart fabrics” that promise to wick moisture and heat is its composition and ready availability — the polyethylene used is already mass-produced as plastic kitchen wrap, and used in batteries to keep them from shorting. To transform it into a breathable cloth, researchers perforated the material with a microneedle and doused it in polydopamine to make it water-permeable (for improved moisture wicking). To strengthen it and make it feel more like clothing you can find in stores, they also sandwiched some cotton mesh between two layers of the material.
Researchers still have some pressing questions to answer, like how comfortable the fabric is when you’re wearing it. But Ossola says we could be wearing the end result within three to five years. And if it passes muster, the cloth could keep us from reaching for the AC, at least until the midday heat surge. It’s all part of a trend towards wearable technology that can influence human behaviors — and this fabric doesn’t need recharging. If, that is, a plastic shirt can make it past the court of public opinion.
“If it’s 85 degrees, four degrees is going to make a big difference,” Ossola says. “But if it’s 105 with 100 percent humidity, I’m not really sure that the wicking is going to do a whole lot of good. The researchers touted this from the perspective of, if it prevents us from turning on the AC or saves a little bit of energy, this could be a really good solution for … people in hot places,” Ossola says.
And to be clear, the fabric is not as see-through as plastic wrap, Ossola says. “So you don’t have to worry about that.”
Alex Ossola is a freelance science journalist based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing.
Because every story has a flipside, if tank tops and shorts aren’t enough to keep you cool in the summer heat, then you might be in luck. Stanford researchers have engineered a new type of fabric they say can bring your body temperature down by almost four degrees. A less sweaty commute to work? Who wouldn’t want that.
But what it’s made of could have you feeling a little bit uncomfortable in other ways. Here to tell us about the good and the bad of this cooling fabric is our guest. Alex Ossola is a freelance science journalist and a contributor to Vocativ. Alex, welcome to Science Friday.
ALEX OSSOLA: Hi, thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: OK, so tell us about this new fabric. What’s it made out of exactly?
ALEX OSSOLA: So the idea is that normal clothes– your shorts, tank tops– they can make you hot when it’s really hot out, because they trap infrared heat. So this material has pores that will release that heat, plus there are other types of holes in it that will wick the moisture away from your body, cooling you off.
IRA FLATOW: We’ve got some fabrics that are like that now. We can buy a golf shirt or something that will wick moisture. How is this different than the clothes that are on the market right now?
ALEX OSSOLA: Well, the key is in what it’s made of, which is polyethylene. It’s actually found in plastic wrap. But the way the researchers came about this particular material is that it’s also used in batteries, and it keeps them from shorting. So it’s already being mass produced.
They found this nano porous material. And in order to make it more comfortable and better to release heat, they did a couple of things. They punched holes in it with a micro needle, so that makes it more breathable to better resemble something like cotton. And then they also doused it with this chemical called polydopamine, and that makes it more permeable to water so that it wicks away the moisture, as we discussed before.
So to make it even closer to resemble fabrics that we already have on the market, there are three layers. They took the two layers of the material that they made, and they put a little cotton mesh in between. The idea is that it’s stronger and that it will hold up like real clothes.
IRA FLATOW: So it’s plastic wrap with little tiny holes in it, with a little cotton layer in between. And it’s going to keep you cool– how much cooler is going to keep you?
ALEX OSSOLA: Four degrees, the researchers found when they tested it in the lab. But they said it could be commercialized within three to five years. So there are a lot more tests they still have to do. There are things that they don’t really know yet, like how comfortable it might be.
And to be clear, it is not as see through as plastic wrap, so you don’t have to worry about that.
IRA FLATOW: Well, you talk about the good thing, bad thing about this. Obviously, it would be good to stay cooler. But four degrees, first of all, doesn’t sound like a whole lot. Is four degrees enough to, I don’t keep, me that much cooler on a hot day?
ALEX OSSOLA: Well, the researchers didn’t really write that much about this. But in my mind, if it’s 85 degrees, four degrees is going to make a big difference. But if it’s 105 with 100% humidity, I’m not really sure that the wicking is going to do a whole lot of good. The researchers in their paper touted this from the perspective of, if it prevents us from turning on the AC or saves a little bit of energy, this could be a really good solution for the growing need for climate change and people in hot places.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, so this is like a climate change mitigation, clothing factor. You don’t have to cool a building as much, because people are wearing cooler clothes.
ALEX OSSOLA: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: Why don’t you just wear other cooler clothes? Is this really going to revolutionize anything in the garment industry? Are there other things like this, maybe, that are coming soon, too?
ALEX OSSOLA: Yes, so there are some competing projects. What they’re made of is a little bit different. And I think it’s a lofty goal to get people to try to change their behavior. If it saves a little bit of energy, it might be worth it. But in the end, it might not stop people from needing to turn on a fan or AC.
IRA FLATOW: And they’re not exactly sure if this is going to be comfortable. It’s made out of plastic wrap. And so the question is– well, I’ll ask you Alex. Would you wear a shirt made out of plastic wrap?
ALEX OSSOLA: I really struggle in the summer. And if it was going to keep me cooler, then yeah, I would do it. But I can’t say that it will keep me from turning on my air conditioner necessarily.
IRA FLATOW: Well, maybe we can look for this sometime soon on the shelves. Alex Ossola is a freelance science journalist and a contributor to Vocativ. Thanks so much for bringing us this story. I appreciate it.
ALEX OSSOLA: Thank you.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.