Engineers have developed a next-generation, adaptive space blanket which allows its users to control their temperature. The innovation is inspired by the skin of stealthy sea creatures.
The study was published in Nature Communications.
"Ultra-lightweight space blankets have been around for decades - you see marathon runners wrapping themselves in them to prevent the loss of body heat after a race - but the key drawback is that the material is static. We have made a version with changeable properties so you can regulate how much heat is trapped or released," said co-author Alon Gorodetsky.
The researchers took design cues from various species of squids, octopuses and cuttlefish that use their adaptive, dynamic skin to thrive in aquatic environments.
A cephalopod's unique ability to camouflage itself by rapidly changing colour is due, in part to skin cells called chromatophores that can instantly change from minute points to flattened disks.
"We use a similar concept in our work, where we have a layer of these tiny metal 'islands' that border each other," said lead author Erica Leung.
"In the relaxed state, the islands are bunched together and the material reflects and traps heat, like a traditional Mylar space blanket. When the material is stretched, the islands spread apart, allowing infrared radiation to go through and heat to escape," said Leung.
"The temperature at which people are comfortable in an office is slightly different for everyone. Where one person might be fine at 70 degrees, the person at the next desk might prefer 75 degrees," he said.
"Our invention could lead to clothing that adjusts to suit the comfort of each person indoors. This could result in potential savings of 30 to 40 per cent on heating and air conditioning energy use," said Gorodetsky.
And those marathon runners who wrap themselves in space blankets might be able to type in a number on a garment-integrated user interface to achieve the desired level of thermal comfort, optimising performance during races and recovery afterwards.
Other benefits Leung mentioned include the material's light weight, ease and low cost of manufacturing, and durability. She noted that it can be stretched and returned to its original state thousands of times.
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