The mechanisms underlying the metatissue have been used in other applications such as reflective paints for buildings and space shuttles, but “this is the first time that it has been designed into a textile, and this is so exciting “, says Yu Huang Wang, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Maryland, who was not involved in the study. “It’s pretty interesting work showing that you can actually incorporate new functionality into textiles. Wang stresses that the team’s testing of vests and car covers is important because they demonstrate real use cases for consumer goods.
It is important to note that the meta fabric also works much like traditional textiles. It can be shot on reels; it is more stretchy than cotton and as durable as elastane. This means it can be used with existing commercial sewing machines and for any style of clothing without the need for special equipment or hand sewing, according to Ma and her team.
This could help the metatissile overcome an obstacle encountered by other heat management textiles. Jyotirmoy Mandal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies metamaterials and radiative cooling and was not involved in the study, noted that the researchers considered comfort, durability, and manufacturing practices on a large scale in the design of the metatissue, aspects that others or heated textiles often miss. “What’s really good is that they actually show a very scalable way of doing this, which means we should expect this to be used soon,” he says.
Still, the mixed fabric can face business challenges, as the clothing industry is very competitive. “There are a lot of things that make a garment acceptable. There are a lot of fabric qualities that are hard to describe, let alone engineer, ”says Gerbi, qualities like durability, texture and the highly subjective but very important aspects of fashion and creativity.
Erik Torgerson, an engineer from SRI International’s Safety and Survival Laboratory, whose field research was funded by APRA-E, points out that adding titanium dioxide particles to a textile as is the case for the mixed fabric could weigh down the clothes. And any product made from textiles that work by reflecting light will almost certainly have to be white, Torgenson says, limiting consumer options.
Ma’s team hasn’t tested what consumers think of metafabric, but they say they’ve been approached by around 40 or 50 companies interested in using it. One of them, Read, a Chinese outdoor and sporting goods company, is working with researchers to explore large-scale manufacturing. “If the fabric can be mass-produced, the products made from the fabric will be made as soon as possible,” said Toread vice president Byron Chen, who is considering the use of the fabric in clothing, tents, buildings and even for cold chain transport food and vaccines.
If meta-fabric and other emerging cooling textiles find a way to market, they could play a role in climate change adaptation. The recent United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts warmer global temperatures and more frequent heat waves. In the United States alone, heat stroke causes or contributes to about 700 deaths every year; this number has increased steadily over time. The International Energy Agency expects global demand for air conditioners triple in the next 30 years.
Textiles for personal heat management may one day offer a sort of alternative to air conditioning. For this reason, it is important for Ma’s team to keep prices low. Guangming Tao, senior researcher on the project and professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, says materials and labor are usually only a small fraction of the total price of clothing; the rest is usually due to a 55 to 60 percent mark-up for retailers. He estimates that swapping meta-fabric for another fabric will only increase material costs by about 1%.
“We are trying to make it as cheap as possible, so that it can then serve all those who are not rich, who are not powerful,” Ma said. “This is one of my wishes: to do normal people enjoy technology. “
More great WIRED stories