Scientists create smart clothes for personal temperature control

The small and lightweight PSEP device marks a breakthrough in wearable thermal control devices, enhancing personal comfort while also being fashionable and portable. Credit: ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces (2023).

Imagine being able to control the temperature of your clothes as easily as adjusting a thermostat, keeping you cool in the summer heat or warm during the winter chill.

This isn’t a scene from a sci-fi movie but the promise of the latest wearable thermal devices developed by researchers.

These devices are not just about keeping you comfortable; they can also enhance experiences in virtual and augmented reality, provide relief through thermotherapy for various health issues, and more.

At the forefront of this innovation are liquid-cooling garments and soft robotics. Liquid-cooling garments, which are already being used by race car drivers, surgeons, and athletes, work by circulating cool or warm liquids through tubes embedded in the clothes.

This helps to adjust the body’s temperature as needed. However, traditional systems for powering these garments can be bulky and noisy, which makes them less convenient for everyday use.

Enter the electrohydrodynamic (EHD) pump, a game-changing technology that’s making wearable thermal devices more practical. The EHD pump is a marvel of modern engineering that moves liquids by creating an electric field that charges the liquid and then moves it. What makes the EHD pump stand out is its silent operation, lightweight design, and the ability to move liquid at higher rates than conventional pumps.

Combining the EHD pump with soft tubes that easily fit the human body has opened up new possibilities for wearable thermal control devices that are both compact and quiet. Yet, there’s a catch. The soft tubes can get blocked when they bend, which can interrupt the liquid flow. This would normally mean adding extra equipment to monitor the flow, making the device bulkier and requiring more power.

But a research team from Japan has developed an exciting solution to this problem. Led by Ph.D. student Yu Kuwajima from the Shibaura Institute of Technology, the team has created a new device called the Pocketable and Smart Electrohydrodynamic Pump (PSEP) that’s designed to be both small and fashionable. This innovative pump has a special ability to monitor its own flow rates without needing extra equipment. It does this by measuring changes in electrical current, which vary when the flow of liquid changes. This self-sensing capability ensures the device is reliable and doesn’t get in the way of its sleek design.

The team’s creation has proven to be effective, with tests showing it can adjust temperatures by up to 3°C, making a significant difference in personal comfort. The collaboration included experts from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the University of Tokyo, and more, showcasing a united effort in pushing the boundaries of wearable technology.

This breakthrough represents a major step forward in wearable tech, offering a glimpse into a future where our clothes do more than just cover us—they keep us at the perfect temperature, enhancing our comfort and health in ways we’re just beginning to explore.