Researchers in the US have developed a low-cost plastic-based textile that, if incorporated into clothing, could cool the body far more efficiently than is possible with natural or synthetic fabrics.

Developed at Stanford University in California, researchers suggest the new family of fabrics could become the basis for garments that keep people cool in hot climates without air conditioning. The material allows the body to discharge heat to make the wearer feel nearly 4°F cooler than if they wore cotton clothing.

"If you can cool the person rather than the building where they work or live, that will save energy," says Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, and a specialist in photon science at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The material cools by letting perspiration evaporate through the material like ordinary fabrics, but also provides a second, "revolutionary" cooling mechanism that allows heat the body emits as infrared radiation to pass through the plastic textile.

"Forty to 60% of our body heat is dissipated as infrared radiation when we are sitting in an office," says Shanhui Fan, a professor of electrical engineering. "But until now there has been little or no research on designing the thermal radiation characteristics of textiles."

To make the thin material more fabric-like, researchers created a three-ply version: two sheets of treated polyethylene separated by a cotton mesh for strength and thickness. They are now looking to include more colours, textures and cloth-like characteristics. 

"If you want to make a textile, you have to be able to make huge volumes inexpensively," says Cui. "In hindsight, some of what we've done looks very simple, but it's because few have really been looking at engineering the radiation characteristics of textiles."