What if we could drop the need for layered clothing to add or shed when the air temperature changes? We write fairly often about developments in smart clothing with embedded biometric sensors in which the garments play a literally supporting role as transport mechanisms. In other cases, scientists focus on smart clothing that sticks to the primary purpose of protecting our bodies from sun, rain, and temperature. In 2017, for example, we wrote about OtherLab’s fabric that automatically increases its insulation properties with different layers that expand or contract with temperature to vary the size of pockets of air.

In a paper recently published in Science, researchers at the University of Maryland wrote about their work with fabric that dynamically adjusts to changing body temperature. Our bodies release heat through infrared radiation. UMD scientists used yarn created with two different synthetic materials, coated with carbon nanotubes. One yarn strand absorbs water and the other repels it. When a human body gets warm and sweats, that fibers warp in a distortion that allows heat to escape by opening the pores in the fabric. Conversely, the fabric reacts to a cooling body by quickly closing the pores.

According to UMD physics professor Min Ouyang, “The human body is a perfect radiator. It gives off heat quickly. For all of history, the only way to regulate the radiator has been to take clothes off or put clothes on. But this fabric is a true bidirectional regulator.”

Good-bye layered look!

The UMD researchers say more work is needed with the technology before it’s ready for commercialization. However, the base materials are commonly available and adding the nanotube coating is easy. If the work proceeds quickly the day may come soon when we can wear just one layer of clothing most of the year.