A petri dish containing three pieces of fabric (© 2016 Stanford University/Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)
(© 2016 Stanford University/Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Stanford engineers have developed a fabric that might help people to adapt to the world’s warming temperatures — one that not only allows perspiration to escape but also cools the skin.

According to the scientists who published their findings in Science, the low-cost, plastic-based textile could be woven into clothing and cool the body more efficiently than the natural or synthetic fibers prevalent today.

By cooling people rather than the building in which they work or live, you save on energy costs, said lead scientist Yi Cui, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.

The new material allows the body to feel about 2 degrees Celsius cooler than cotton clothing does. Like wicking fabrics, it allows perspiration to evaporate through the material. But the new material also allows heat emitted by the body (as infrared radiation) to pass through the textile.

As a result, a person dressed in this new material might not feel the need to turn on a fan or air conditioner.

Ready to wear?

Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford who specializes in photonics — the study of visible and invisible light — said roughly half of our body heat is dissipated as infrared radiation, but there has been little research into designing textiles to deal with that.

“Wearing anything traps some heat” and warms the skin, Fan said in a press release. “If dissipating thermal radiation were our only concern, then it would be best to wear nothing.” But modesty is a concern, so a fabric that can keep us cool when temperatures are high is a real breakthrough.

The Stanford scientists’ next experiments will attempt to create the textile in more colors and with clothlike characteristics, while making it easier to produce in mass quantities.