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3 May 2016

4 Innovations that have Changed the Way We Think About Insulation

When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty amazing that we’ve been able to adapt ourselves to temperatures we were never meant to survive in. Our species was still young when we were tested by the ice age, and since then we’ve been beating Mother Nature at her own game, inventing more and more ways to keep the human body warm in temperatures well below freezing.

Many of these innovations have implications beyond the world of simply keeping warm, but in either case, they are all examples of extraordinary scientific advancement.


Aerogel

After literally centuries of down being the most effective form of heat trapping for expeditions into the coldest reaches of the planet, aerogel was a major game changer. Sure, we’ve had weaves of polymer fabrics for a long time, but it was never a fully serviceable replacement for down.

Img source: inhabitat.com
Aerogel has actually existed since 1931, to see if the liquid in jellies could be replaced with gas without shrinking the surface area. In this way, it’s very low density and has very low heat conductivity. It stands to reason that the technology could be applicable to cold weather gear, but it didn’t really start to gain ground until 2010.

This is when the ‘Supersuit’, developed by HanesBrands, was unveiled. It featured a thin layer of chambered aerogel insulation. They tested it by sending a team up Everest wearing the suit, and afterwards the consensus was that it was as comfortable and practical as it was warm. Various companies have been trying to figure out a system of manufacture which would make this technology widely available, and when it is, you might never need to wear a puff coat ever again.


Clo-i Fibres

Img source: cloinsulation.com
Since Aerogel is still very much in the developmental phase, so far as insulation is concerned, we’re still very much reliant on fibres for retaining heat. There are different types, all with different advantages. Solid fibres are stronger, and therefore better for creating a seal, hollow fibres carry heat within and shaped fibres tessellate, which makes them more breathable. Using a combination of all three of these, the team behind Clo-i were able to create an entirely new kind.

Clo-i fibres manage to be breathable, warm, flexible and light all at the same time, eliminating the need to trade one quality off for another depending on the circumstances. They almost resemble puzzle pieces, creating hollow sections as they press together. In this way, it is able to repel water vapour, but ‘wick’ away the air and vapour collected internally as it moves.

The design can be applied to basically any kind of insulating material you can name. It still has different variants; depending on how much cold you’re going to be dealing with, but beyond that the structure is always the same. This kind of versatility also cuts down heavily on production costs, meaning that the actual apparel can be sold a lot more cheaply.


Air Permeable Fabric

This is a particularly recent development, as the need for waterproof, insulated winter gear which also breathes, so as to account for particularly aerobic activities, hasn’t been imperative for all that long. You see, once you make an insulated fabric waterproof as well, you also severely limit the airflow which can actually reach and permeate it.

The solution? A three-layer fabric with a porous membrane which lets vapour pass through, but not liquid. This way, heat doesn’t get trapped on the inside, so strenuous activity won’t reduce you to a shimmering mass of sweat.

At present, there are two main types of air permeable fabric – Polartec Neoshell and Mountain Hardware Dry-Q. A number of big name lines, including The North Face and Westcomb are now coming out with air permeable products, which will be invaluable to people who engage in winter sports like cross-country skiing.


Nanotechnology

Img source: cordantdynamic.com
This one is still classified as being in the developmental stage. Nanotechnology is already present in many forms of clothing, but it’s more for hygienic, waterproofing or sunblocking purposes. All amazing, doubtless, but unlikely to keep you warm. That might all soon change though.

A group of researchers at Stanford University have found that by dipping clothing in a solution of silver nanowires, it can reflect more than 90% of a person’s body heat (via infrared) back onto themselves. For comparison, normal clothing only managed 20%, and insulated clothing doesn’t do that much better.

Metal would have the same effect on a larger scale, but it isn’t breathable. Nanowire, at least in this instance, is. With the kind of surface area being covered, the total weight of the metal involved would be less than 1 gram for a whole outfit. The most impressive thing about this is that it could be applicable to any kind of clothing, not just outdoor gear, which could potentially reduce the cost of domestic heating. In environmental terms, that’s a big deal.  


Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.