A new type of 'smart' clothing which adapts to changing temperatures to keep the wearer comfortable is being developed by two universities using nature as a guide.
The clothing will use the latest in micro technology to produce material which will let in air to cool a wearer when it is hot and shut out air when it is cold. This is similar to a system used by pine cones to open up and emit seeds.
The University of Bath and the London College of Fashion are jointly researching the material, which they think could be in everyday use by people within a few years.
The project has been chosen as one of eight to represent UK science at the Expo 2005 in Japan from March to September next year, whose theme is Nature's Wisdom. The Expo is expected to attract 15 million visitors, and other UK science projects will be the Eden Project and the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew.
The smart garments will consist of a top layer of tiny spikes of water-absorbent material, possibly wool, each only 1/200th of a millimetre wide. When the wearer of the clothing gets hot and sweats, the tiny spikes in the material will react to the moisture and automatically open up, so that air from the outside can get through the material to cool the wearer. When the wearer stops sweating, the spikes will close down again to stop air getting in.
The lower layer will be of material that is not porous so that rain can never get through from the outside, whether the spikes are open or closed.
The technology of the material is being designed by the University of Bath's Centre for Biomimetics, which takes ideas from nature and turns them into new technology.
Its head, Professor Julian Vincent, said: "The new smart clothing will make wearers' lives much more comfortable by automatically adjusting their clothing to control their body temperature.
"We've all known days when the weather alters quickly and it's difficult to dress to match the changing temperature. Often it's a case of being too hot or too cold, or taking a jumper on and off.
"The new smart clothing will make all that unnecessary and we're pleased to combine our expertise in technology with cutting-edge clothing design.
"We've drawn upon nature to come up with an idea by looking at how pine cones react to lack of moisture by opening up,"
The design is being carried out by Veronika Kapsali, who is studying for her PhD in design at the London College of Fashion, part of the University of Arts London.
"It's been great fun working on a project that is going to lead to a fundamental change in clothing," said Veronika, who has experience of designing for both the high street and London Fashion Week, and has been working on the project part-time for three years.
"It's up to me to work with the new material to make something that looks pretty cool as well as innovative. I see this as a fascinating interface between design and technology."
The material could have a wide variety of applications and could be used for coats, hats, gloves, shirts, trousers, dresses and skirts.
1. Pine cones hanging on trees are closed but when they fall off the tree they open up to allow the seeds to be released. The scales are able to open because they are made of two layers of stiff fibres running in different directions. As the cone dries out, the inside of the scale expands more than the outside, causing the scale to bend outwards, releasing the seed held inside. This is a similar principle as the smart clothing.
2. The smart fabric concept is being showcased at the UK Pavilion at Expo 2005, which is being held in Aichi Province, Japan. Visitors to the pavilion will encounter a mix of art installations and scientific innovations while walking through a landscaped garden into an indoor space filled with interactive communication media. The installations and innovations are all linked by the common theme of having been inspired by nature, which fits into the overall Expo theme.
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