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The cold winter months are upon us in the northern hemisphere and with it comes escalating energy bills as we struggle to keep snug. But imagine if ourclothes could radiate heat and help us stay warm. A team of researchers have been working towards this very concept by investigating how clothes coated in a chemical solution (silver nanowire or AgNW) could keep us insulated. This would mean that instead of having to heat our homes, where most of our energy consumption goes, we could all be comfortably heated by the clothes we wear.

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Led by Stanford University’s Professor Yi Cui, PhD student Po-Chun Hsu and others, the research has been published in a paper about AgNW-coated textiles. This paper explains that many strategies that look at sustainable energy focus on how to insulate a building. Yet most of the energy consumed is still wasted on heating inanimate objects and empty space. This adds up to almost half of global energy spent, on heating interior spaces.

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In comparison, “personal thermal management”, as it is dubbed, demonstrates how clothing dipped in a metallic nanowire solution reflects over 90% of an individual’s body heat. The average item of clothing material only reflects back around 20% of body heat. It would be fairly impractical to wear clothes made of silver – a low-emissivity material that is a good insulator – but the AgNW-coated items of clothing would be pretty much the same as before. Dipped items would remain breathable, feel as comfortable as regular clothing, and even be machine washable.

The other interesting factor in this research is that this kind of clothing would also provide Joule heating when connected to an electricity source, similar to a battery. Although it is hard to estimate the full reduction of energy consumption and savings such clothing could lead to, researchers say it could be as much as the energy emitted by a 2-square meter solar panel. This could be a huge transformation for genuinely warming clothes, and make future winter months as cozy as they are fashionable.