This heat regulating clothing has a secret ingredient: bacteria.

High performance sports clothing is big business. Athletes, both professional and amateur, are willing to spend big money on garments that can help improve athletic performance by improving comfort, keeping the body cool/warm or helping with recovery. Well, athletes may soon be able to get a helping hand from an unexpected ally; bacteria.

Bacteria is normally something that athletes want to avoid; bacterial build-up in sports clothing is normally responsible for that hard-to-shift “stale sweat” odour. In fact, materials like merino wool have become very popular in sportswear because of their natural antibacterial (and thus, anti-odour) properties.

However, a new project from MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group is looking at harnessing the power of bacteria so that athletes may regulate their temperature better.

Their BioLogic project uses the bacteria bacillus subtilis natto. These bacteria significantly change their shape when there is a change in humidity. They have used this trait to create a new performance fabric called Second Skin.

The Second Skin fabric becomes more breathable (and therefor cooler) as you sweat. As you cool down (and the sweat evaporates) the fabric becomes less breathable (and more insulating) again. This should help athletes thermoregulate more effectively.

The BioLogic team have achieved this by turning the natto bacteria into a biofilm and printing it in layers on a spandex surface. The natto bacteria responds to atmospheric moisture; when the body heats up and sweats, the natto bacteria expand. Because the BioLogic team have printed the bacteria into the fabric, this causes a change in fabric shape, allowing vents in the fabric to open and increase the rate of cooling. When the body cools and the sweat evaporates, the bacteria contract again and the vents close.

  • Wired magazine has a more detailed description of the project, including two excellent videos that both demonstrate the Second Skin and explain how it is constructed: http://bit.ly/1RUDk0l
  • There are also a whole host of images at the BioLogic website: http://bit.ly/1RUDLHO

The Cutting Edge Science of wearable technologies (smart fabrics such as Second Skin, in addition to other wearable tech like smartwatches and sensors) are a brilliantly engaging context for teaching science. Here are some possible points for discussing with pupils…

  • How does the human body keep cool? What can high performance sports clothing do to help this process?
  • What possible issues might there be with using bacteria in a smart fabric? (think - what do bacteria need to survive?)
  • What other possible uses are there for this technology outside the realm of high performance sports clothing?
  • What clothing do they already wear/own that uses science and technology in a useful way? (hint: this can be as simple as wool as an insulator, or wicking in sports kit)

Are you interested in bringing the Cutting Edge Science of Wearable Technology into the classroom? The National Science Learning Network, in partnership with Research Councils UK, offer a number of exciting Cutting Edge Science courses designed to help bring Cutting Edge Science into your day to day classroom practice, including courses on Wearable Technology.

All CPD which is part of the Bringing Cutting Edge Science into the Classroom programme qualifies for a bursary of up to £180 per day. Click here for further details: https://www.stem.org.uk/node/36938

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Subject(s)Biology, Physics, Textiles and Fashion, Engineering, Creative arts and media, Science, Design and technology
Age7-11, 11-14, 14-16, 16-19
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