Scientists in the United States have collaborated to develop a material that can dynamically regulate its thermal properties – switching back and forth between insulating and cooling – and is said to have massive potential for activewear.

The researchers from the University of Virginia, Penn State, the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, say the material regulates its thermal properties based on the amount of water that is present. It uses heat transport principles combined with a biopolymer inspired by squid ring teeth.

The invention, the scientists say, holds great promise for all sorts of new devices and materials with the ability to regulate temperature and heat flow on demand, including "smart" fabrics.

"The switching effect of thermal conductivity would be ideal for many applications, including athletics," says John Tomko, a PhD candidate in UVA's department of materials science and engineering. "This material has the potential to revolutionise active wear, unleashing the possibility of clothing that can dynamically respond to body heat and regulate temperature.

"For example, the biopolymer has a low thermal conductivity while dry, essentially storing body heat and keeping the athlete (and his or her muscles!) warm while not active. As soon as the wearer begins to sweat, the material could become hydrated and instantly increase its thermal conductivity, allowing this body heat to escape through the material and cool the athlete down. When the person is done training and the sweat has evaporated, the material could go back to an insulative state and keep the wearer warm again."

The scientists says garments made using this technology would be a step above what is available on the market today because of the material's extremely wide range of technical capabilities.

For example, polar fleece generally requires different weights to accommodate different combinations of temperatures and activity levels. The new material could accommodate the whole gamut of athletic scenarios within one garment. Fleece is considered breathable, a passive state, but the biopolymer material would actively conduct heat out of the garment.

The process of creating "programmable" materials could be good news for manufacturers and the environment. Usually textile companies have to rely on different types of fibres and different manufacturing processes to create clothing with varying attributes, but the tunable aspect of these materials means that insulating and cooling attributes can be created from the same process. This could lead to lower manufacturing costs and reduced carbon emissions, the scientists say.

Squid ring teeth, which make programmable materials possible, are a new avenue of scientific research first discovered at Penn State. These biomaterials contain unique properties such as strength, self-healing and biocompatibility, making them exceptionally suitable for programming at the molecular level, in this case for thermal regulation.