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Sustainable polyethylene fabrics with engineered moisture transport for passive cooling

Abstract

Polyethylene (PE) has emerged recently as a promising polymer for incorporation in wearable textiles owing to its high infrared transparency and tuneable visible opacity, which allows the human body to cool via thermal radiation, potentially saving energy on building refrigeration. Here, we show that single-material PE fabrics may offer a sustainable, high-performance alternative to conventional textiles, extending beyond radiative cooling. PE fabrics exhibit ultra-light weight, low material cost and recyclability. Industrial materials sustainability (Higg) index calculations predict a low environmental footprint for PE fabrics in the production phase. We engineered PE fibres, yarns and fabrics to achieve efficient water wicking and fast-drying performance which, combined with their excellent stain resistance, offer promise in reducing energy and water consumption as well as the environmental footprint of PE textiles in their use phase. Unlike previously explored nanoporous PE materials, the high-performance PE fabrics in this study are made from fibres melt spun and woven on standard equipment used by the textile industry worldwide and do not require any chemical coatings. We further demonstrate that these PE fibres can be dry coloured during fabrication, resulting in dramatic water savings without masking the PE molecular fingerprints scanned during the automated recycling process.

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Fig. 1: PE cast into fibre form and woven into a fabric yields low-environmental footprint material for wearable textiles.
Fig. 2: Wetting properties of PE fabric, yarn and fibres.
Fig. 3: Comparative drying and evaporative cooling performance of textiles.
Fig. 4: The simple structure of the PE molecule inhibits staining and simplifies washing procedures.
Fig. 5: Spin-dyed PE fabrics can be identified and sorted by near-infrared scanning during the automated recycling process.

Data availability

Supplementary information is available for this paper. Additional data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center’s SPS Directorate through the US Army Research Office (no. W911NF-13-D-0001), the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) institute (no. W15QKN-16-3-0001), MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MIT – Italy MITOR Project no. 2018), the MIT Deshpande Center (no. 6941280), MIT-Tecnológico de Monterrey Nanotechnology Program and the UNSW-USA Networks of Excellence. We thank J. Garner (Minifibers Inc.), A. Jain (Shingora Ltd.), M. J. Schmuhl (AFFOA) and B. A. Welsh (DEVCOM SC) for help with PE fibre and textile fabrication. We also thank L. Shaw, C. Settens (MIT), C. Gomes and R. Ruckdashel (UMass Lowell) for help with PE fibre and textile characterization. We also thank M. Rein, A. Stolyarov and J. Cox (AFFOA), M. Karanjikar (Technology Holding LLC), V. Livada, J. Wachman, L. Sandler, K. Golmer and C. Noble (MIT), T. Rycroft and I. Linkov (US Army Engineer Research and Development Center), M. Cattonar (NERAMCO), N. Pomerantz, M. Richards and C. Mello (DEVCOM Soldier Center) for helpful discussions.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

S.V.B. defined the project and coordinated measurements and modelling. G.C., R.M.O., P.A. and M.F. participated in project discussions. M.A. led the project in experimental design, modelling and analysis of mass and heat transport. S.H. and L.M.L. fabricated the coloured high-tenacity fibres. L.M.L., S.H.Z., Y.H., C.F. and V.K. performed structural, spectral, thermal and mechanical characterization experiments and analysed data. M.A., S.H. and F.S. performed the wicking-dynamics and water-evaporation measurements. I.U. performed fabric touch test measurements. M.Y.T. designed and performed PCA analysis of bare and coloured fibres. V.K. performed LCA analysis. M.A., L.M.L., V.K., M.Y.T., M.F. and S.V.B. organized the manuscript figures and technical content. M.A., M.F. and S.V.B. wrote the manuscript. G.C., R.M.O., P.A. and M.F. discussed the results and their interpretation. All authors edited and finalized the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Svetlana V. Boriskina.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks Yuan Yang, Xiaoming Tao and Po-Chun Hsu for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Examples of woven and knitted PE fabrics.

Different types of knitted (left) and woven (right) PE fabrics produced by using standard textile industry equipment. Woven textile has been made on an industrial loom at Shingora Textile Ltd. (India), and knitted samples have been produced by Mary Jane Schmuhl on a Shima knitting machine at AFFOA headquarters (Cambridge, MA).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–25, Discussion and Tables 1–7.

Supplementary Video 1

Three-dimensional reconstruction of a woven PE fabric sample obtained by merging 540 cross-sectional images with the software Dragonfly. The snapshots were obtained by scanning the fabric sample with a high-resolution micro-CT scanner.

Supplementary Video 2

Spontaneous wicking of a water droplet by the woven PE fabric. The capillary properties of the fabric, proven in this video, are the result of the chosen weaving pattern, the fibre arrangement within the yarn and fibre surface hydrophilicity.

Supplementary Video 3

Restoring the capillary properties of the woven PE fabric by mechanical friction. Because both samples were previously hand-washed several times, they could not wick water, as shown by the stable spherical water droplets deposited on the sample on the right. By simply rubbing the sample on the left, its hydrophilicity was restored, as proven by the prompt wicking of the water droplets deposited on its surface.

Supplementary Video 4

Restoring the capillary properties of the woven PE fabric by UV treatment. The sample was previously hand-washed several times to inhibit its wicking properties. The hydrophilic properties of the textile were partially restored by exposure to UV light.

Supplementary Video 5

Evaporation of a water droplet deposited on a fibre extracted from the woven PE fabric. The hydrophilic but non-permeable surface of the PE fibres allows water to spread within the fabric without permeating the fibres, resulting in a faster drying rate.

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Alberghini, M., Hong, S., Lozano, L.M. et al. Sustainable polyethylene fabrics with engineered moisture transport for passive cooling. Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00688-5

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