Reversible fabric keeps you warm or cool on demand

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The fabric with a neat party trick – wear it one way and it keeps you warm, but flip it inside out and it will keep you cool.

This resource is best suited to Physics, Chemistry and Biology students in Years 8, 9 and 10 who are learning about energy transfer, elements and body systems reactions to the environment (temperature control).

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Every classroom and office in the world knows the problem – some people feeling cold while others sit around in short sleeves. There doesn’t seem to be a single temperature that keeps everyone comfortable. Enter a new fabric from California which might solve everyone’s complaints, and make reversible clothes the new fashion.

“Why do you need to cool and heat the whole building? Why don’t you cool and heat individual people?” asked researcher Yi Cui from Stanford University.

Our bodies have many ways of controlling our temperature. When it’s cold, the hairs in our skin stand out to trap warm air, and we shiver to produce more radiant heat in our muscles. When we’re hot, we release heat as infrared radiation from our skin, and if we’re still warm we start to sweat.

Fabrics able to heat or cool by taking advantage of the infrared radiation released from our bodies have been developed previously. However, seeing it as a challenge, Cui and his team decided to see if they could make a single fabric have both heating and cooling abilities.

Credit: Yi Cui Group

The researchers started off with a polyethylene material they had previously developed. Similar to kitchen plastic wrap, this polyethylene is only 45 microns thick, but is made porous with nanometre-sized holes. These holes allow body heat to pass through, keeping skin around 2° Celsius cooler, while also making the layer opaque so you can’t see through it.

The researchers then stacked two layers of material with different abilities to release heat energy. On one side, a carbon layer strongly absorbs heat and re-releases warming infrared radiation. On the other, a copper layer only weakly absorbs and radiates infrared radiation.

Effectively, the infrared radiation is blocked from being released to whichever side the copper is facing.

To create the super-fabric, the researchers sandwiched the additional layers between different thicknesses of their polyethylene. Worn with a thin polyethylene layer facing inwards with the copper, and the carbon layer facing outwards, the garment cools by the carbon-absorbing body heat and then radiating it outwards.

Flip it around and the thick polyethylene layer is facing inwards with the carbon, which absorbs and reradiates body heat back towards the skin.

The sandwich is so effective it can create a 6.5° Celsius difference in temperature depending on which way around it is worn.

Heating and cooling accounts for around 40% of energy use in the United States, making the development of personal climate-controlling clothing a creative and potentially powerful way to reduce costs and carbon emissions.

The multi-layer fabric is expected to be a relatively low-cost solution, with the thin layers of each material being commonly available and affordable to manufacture.

Unfortunately however, we’re not likely to see the white-coloured fabric on shelves in the near future, as the researchers are still trying to work out how to make it into a material that can be woven like traditional fabric.

“Ideally, when we get to the stuff you want to wear on skin, we’ll need to make it into a fibre woven structure,” said Cui. Woven textiles are stronger, more elastic, more comfortable, and look much more like typical clothing.

But most importantly of all, they have already started testing to make sure their fabric will be machine washable.

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Years: 8, 9, 10


Biological Sciences – The Body

Chemical Sciences – Atoms

Physical Sciences – Energy

Additional: Careers, Technology, Engineering.

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences – Form and Function

Chemical Sciences – Change of Matter

Physical Sciences – Energy