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Stanford University engineers develop a plastic clothing material that cools the skin

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Stanford researchers began with a sheet of polyethylene and modified it with a series of chemical treatments, resulting in a cooling fabric. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford University engineers have developed a low-cost, plastic-based textile that, if woven into clothing, could cool your body far more efficiently than is possible with the natural or synthetic fabrics in clothes we wear today. The researchers suggest that this new family of fabrics could become the basis for garments that keep people cool in hot climates without air conditioning. “If you can cool the person rather than the building where they work or live, that will save energy,” said Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and of photon science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. This new material works by allowing the body to discharge heat in two ways that would make the wearer feel nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than if they wore cotton clothing.The material cools by letting perspiration evaporate through the material, something ordinary fabrics already do. But the Stanford material provides a second, revolutionary cooling mechanism: allowing heat that the body emits as infrared radiation to pass through the plastic textile. To develop their cooling textile, the Stanford researchers blended nanotechnology, photonics and chemistry to give polyethylene – the clear, clingy plastic we use as kitchen wrap – a number of characteristics desirable in clothing material: It allows thermal radiation, air and water vapor to pass right through, and it is opaque to visible light.