Bundling up in a puffy Canada Goose jacket isn’t just a fashion statement; the coats are filled with goose down that helps trap and retain body heat when temperatures plummet. But engineers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst have drawn inspiration from another animal that calls Canada home, and have now created a new insulating fabric that copies how polar bears are able to survive extreme colds.
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Differentiating a polar bear from a grizzly bear is easy thanks to their white coats of fur. But that fur isn’t just for camouflage against the frozen tundra. A polar bear’s fur doesn’t look any thicker than what you’ll find on other bears, but it somehow allows them to easily endure Arctic temperatures as cold as -50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s only in the past few decades that researchers studying the animals have finally figured out how.
If you’ve ever stepped into the summer heat in a black shirt, you know how easily it absorbs sunlight. But white polar bear fur, which is actually hollow, is even better at absorbing the sun. That’s because it works like natural fiber optics, channeling sunlight towards the bear’s body. That sunlight is then absorbed by the polar bear’s black skin, helping its body capture as much warmth as possible, with the fur then pulling double-duty as an excellent insulator. Turns out the same hollow fibers that are so good at capturing sunlight are terrible thermal conductors, meaning collected heat energy stays where it’s needed and doesn’t radiate away from the animal.
To recreate this excellent approach to insulation in something humans can wear, the University of Massachusetts Amherst engineers created a new fabric with layers that specifically recreate elements of a polar bear’s body. The base layer is made from nylon coated with a polymer known as PEDOT, which has excellent heat-retaining properties. The top layer, meanwhile, is covered in transparent polypropylene threads that help conduct visible light—whether from the sun or artificial indoor lighting—towards the nylon base layer to warm it up.
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The engineers claim that a jacket made from the material they’ve created would be both “30% lighter than the same jacket made of cotton” while also keeping you “comfortable at temperatures 10 degrees Celsius colder than the cotton jacket could handle”—assuming you aren’t sitting in the dark, because the material’s warming properties are completely dependent on harnessing light.
However, the material could be paired with other insulators to provide all-day-warmth, and we won’t have to wait long to see how it will be used in commercial products. Although a paper detailing the research was only published just last week, a company called Soliyarn has already started production of the new material, so it may not be long before the Canada Goose coat is replaced with the Canadian Polar Bear parka.