Infrared Shirt Cools You, Reduces Need for AC

A new cool-temp fabric could keep you more comfortable in hot weather and help lower your electric bill.

Researchers hunting for a way to cut energy costs have come up with a unique solution: a fabric that keeps your body both warmer and cooler by dissipating both heat and infrared radiation.

Clothing made of this new material would allow people to spend more time in hot climates or hot buildings, for example, said Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science at Stanford University, and an author on the study, which was published today in the journal Science.

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At normal skin temperatures of 34 degrees Celsius, the human body emits infrared radiation at wavelength that partially overlaps with that of visible light, meaning that cloth can trap body heat.

"In the last two years, we have been trying to look for the idea of how could you save the building energy," Cui said. "We have air conditioning and heating, but what's needed is to heat the person, not the building. If we can change the air conditioning and a couple of degrees higher or lower, we can save 20 percent of electricity use in the United States."

Cui and his team at Stanford have developed a material made with tiny micro-fibers, something called nano-polyethylene, that allow the infrared light to escape. In experiment, they found the cloth heated a simulated skin by 0.8 degrees Celsius, compared to 3.5 degrees Celsius for cotton and 2.9 degrees C for regular polyethylene fabrics.

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They were also able to get the material to wick moisture and sweat away from the body, using tiny pores.

Cui says the next step is to make the material softer, like a comfortable shirt.

"If you touch it, it kind of files close to a regular textile," he said. "We are in development of woven nanomaterial that will feel lighter. This is under research right now and we have some promising data."

Here's a look at how it works:

Svetlana Boriskina, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's department of mechanical engineering, said the new material holds a lot of promise.

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"It's an important milestone, because they showed you can combine several properties, wicking, breathability and new property of IR transparency all in one," said Boriskina, who is working on developing a similar super-cool cloth.

But she agreed there are still some challenges, namely making it both comfortable and getting the material to be able to handle dyes so the cloth can be manufactured in different colors.

"Ideally if it works out, it would look like any other clothes," Boriskina said. "You wouldn't be able to tell the difference. That's what great about this technology. You don't need wiring, coolpacks or anything else on your body."