A nice polar bear out for a walk

Synthetic polar bear fur allows for lightweight jacket in extreme cold

Image credit: Hensoldt | Adobe Stock

Researchers have developed a synthetic textile based on polar bear fur after years of attempts by different teams trying – and failing – to emulate the fur’s unique properties.

Polar bears live in some of the harshest conditions on earth, shrugging off Arctic temperatures as low as -45°C. While the bears have many adaptations that allow them to thrive when the temperature plummets, scientists have been trying to understand how their fur manages to keep them warm in their environment.

Polar animals actively use the sunlight to maintain their temperature through their white fur. While it might be assumed that black fur would be better at absorbing heat, it turns out that the polar bears’ fur is extremely effective at transmitting solar radiation toward the bears’ skin.

“But the fur is only half the equation,” said the paper’s senior author, Trisha L. Andrew. “The other half is the polar bears’ black skin.”

Polar bear fur is essentially a natural fiberoptic, conducting sunlight down to the bears’ skin, which absorbs the light, heating the bear.

But the fur is also exceptionally good at preventing the now-warmed skin from radiating that heat back out.

The researchers engineered a bilayer fabric with a top layer composed of threads that, like polar bear fur, conduct visible light down to the lower layer, which is made of nylon and coated with a dark material called PEDOT. PEDOT, like the polar bears’ skin, warms efficiently.

The material is so efficient that a jacket made from it is 30 per cent lighter than the same jacket made of cotton yet will keep the wearer comfortable at temperatures 10°C colder than the cotton jacket could handle, as long as the sun is shining or a room is well lit.

“Space heating consumes huge amounts of energy that is mostly fossil fuel-derived,” said Wesley Viola, the paper’s lead author.

“While our textile really shines as outerwear on sunny days, the light-heat trapping structure works efficiently enough to imagine using existing indoor lighting to directly heat the body. By focusing energy resources on the ‘personal climate’ around the body, this approach could be far more sustainable than the status quo.”

In 2020, engineers at the University of Missouri developed a ‘wearable air conditioning’ on-skin device which could be used by soldiers to cool down on the battlefield, preventing heat stroke or exhaustion.

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