When temperatures drop, you may wear your next heater instead of turning up the thermostat. New nanowire-coated clothing is designed to keep people toasty without wasting energy heating empty spaces in rooms.
Researchers at Stanford University used metallic, invisible mesh to coat regular fabric. Unlike typical clothing, which lets most body heat escape, the mesh creates a conducting network that radiates warmth back towards the wearer’s skin. Since the wires are nano-sized, the fabric is still as flexible and breathable as ordinary clothing. It’s also sturdy enough to go in a washing machine.
Most heating systems are incredibly inefficient, warming up vast swaths of space inside buildings just to keep the humans inside comfortable. Indoor heating uses almost half of all energy globally and contributes a third of climate change emissions. Why not heat humans directly instead?
Of course, when a polar vortex sweeps through a city, buildings will still need some heat to keep pipes from freezing. But if people inside a building wear clothing that keeps them comfortable, the thermostat can be turned way down–researchers say that indoor temperatures of 55 or 60 degrees can feel warm. In warmer climates, a heater might not be needed at all.
“It depends on how cold the weather can get,” says Yi Cui, one of the authors of a new paper about the technology. “I think that heating systems will still be needed when the outside temperature is too cold. But we can save a lot in the amount of heating.”
Each person wearing the clothing could save around 1000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year. Saving the same amount of energy with solar cells would require two square meter-sized solar panels for each person–something that would be impossible in a high-rise building.
In an office, the clothing could also solve another problem: The perennial challenge of where to set the thermostat. Everyone will finally be able to keep themselves exactly as warm as they want.
The clothing can also be connected to electricity to turn up the heat (the mesh is low-voltage, so the power won’t zap you). That could keep you as cozy outside as inside, making a walk on a brutally cold January day as comfortable as April.
You won’t be able to pick up a nanowire-filled shirt this winter, since the technology is still in development. But the researchers estimate that it might be on the market in five years.
They’re also working on another fabric that can keep people cool in the summer. “Cooling is the opposite of keeping warm–we want to take out as much body infrared radiation as possible,” says Cui. “I am doing research now to design ‘cooling cloth.’ This is an exciting project.”