Image: Yi Cui Group
Image: Yi Cui Group

Keeping cooler may be set to become an awful lot easier thanks to a new plastic based material that can be woven into clothes and developed by scientists at Stanford University.  Among the material’s many benefits is that it could cut air conditioning costs dramatically. The new innovation is a product of convergence, possibly the main driver of innovation in the 21st century.

Ordinary clothing allows heat to be discharged by the body via perspiration. But the new material also allows heat to escape that the body emits as infrared radiation. The researchers describe this as a revolutionary cooling mechanism which could make the wearer feel almost four degrees’ Fahrenheit cooler.

The material is a variant of polyethylene, which is used as a food wrap, but is opaque to light – meaning you can’t see through it.

Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering who specialises in photonics said: “40% to 60% of our body heat is dissipated as infrared radiation when we are sitting in an office. . . but until now there has been little or no research on designing the thermal radiation characteristics of textiles.”

He added: “Wearing anything traps heat and makes skin warmer. . . If dissipating thermal radiation were our only concern, then it would be best to wear nothing.”

Or to put it another way, the new material may be the next best thing to sitting in a hot office naked, but without the embarrassment factor.

Fan suggested that technologies such as this new plastic open up the possibility of keeping cool passively, without the use of outside energy charging air-conditioning.

Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University said: “If you can cool the person rather than the building where they work, that will save energy.”

But how has it happened?

This is an example of convergence.  In the case of this new material, it combines nanotechnology, photonics and chemistry to add features to polyethylene to make it suitable as clothing.

Convergence, where ideas from different areas of academic study, different industries or indeed cultures come together, may be the most important driver of innovation today, and it’s a force that technology cynics seem unware of.