The breakthrough comes from incorporating humidity-sensing E. coli cells into the fabric. The cells are “printed” onto sheets of latex, which is then joined with a second, bacteria-free layer. When placed on a hot plate, the material curls and flaps are opened. The second layer keeps the bacteria from making contact with the wearer’s skin, but still allows the E. coli to sense humidity. The MIT team made a running shirt out of the material, placing flaps on areas of the body that generate heat and sweat.
“People may think heat and sweat are the same, but in fact, some areas like the lower spine produce lots of sweat but not much heat,” says Lining Yao, co-lead author of the study. “We redesigned the garment using a fusion of heat and sweat maps to, for example, make flaps bigger where the body generates more heat.”
The researchers had participants work out on treadmills and exercise bikes. The flaps began opening after about five minutes, which correlated with the subjects beginning to feel warm. Sensors showed that the biofabric removed sweat and cooled the participants.
Future applications could include curtains and bedsheets. Odor-releasing functionalities could also be engineered into the fabric, the researchers say.
The research was published in Science Advances.