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About this Article
Written by: Catherina Ticsay
Written on: November 10th, 2010
Tags: lifestyle, ergonomics, material science
Thumbnail by: Morton/Illumin
About the Author
Catherina Ticsay was a third-year Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Southern California. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, baking, running, and spending time with family and friends.
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Volume XII Issue I > Get That "Just Right" Feel: Incorporating Phase Change Materials Into Textiles
Since their development by NASA nearly 30 years ago, phase change materials (PCMs) have caught the attention of the textile industry because of their high capacity for heat storage. They make it possible to engineer fabrics that help regulate human body temperature. Depending on the surrounding temperature, phase change materials absorb or release heat, consequently oscillating between liquid and solid phases. Microencapsulation makes phase change materials light and portable enough to incorporate into textiles, either as a top-coat or as an addition to the fabric fibers. These “smart textiles” are currently gaining popularity in commercial garments, especially outdoor apparel. However, since PCMs are relatively new technology, there is still room for improvement in their construction and performance.

Introduction

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.
Goldilocks was hungry.
She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.
"This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed.
So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
"This porridge is too cold," she said.
So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.
"Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up. Goldilocks and the Three Bears
We can all relate to Goldilocks in the above excerpt, as we are also in search of a certain level of comfort and personal satisfaction. This desire is evident in our use of clothing, especially in specific articles used in cold weather. In many ways the clothes we wear may ruin or enhance our enjoyment of the outdoors. Not enough clothing will make you feel too cold; excessive layers will make you feel overly warm and bulky. How can you get that “just right” level of comfort in the clothes you wear? In recent years, the textile industry has made great strides in commercializing fabric that can help regulate body temperature. These advancements have been accomplished by engineering certain fabrics with high capacities for heat storage. Known as phase change materials (PCMs), these materials use thermodynamic principles to allow the human body to absorb and release heat when necessary. Initially created for use by NASA astronauts, phase change materials have now made their way to commercial use in textiles, creating an enhanced level of comfort that consumers will have to feel to believe.

Historical Development of PCMs

Since the invention of space suits in the 1950s, the comfort of astronauts in space has been important to NASA engineers, who were interested in engineering garments that would protect astronauts from the extreme temperature fluctuations in space (NASA). Engineers at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Texas initially developed liquid-cooled garments that ran water in small channels throughout a space suit; this suit design was categorized by NASA as an active control system. In the 1980s, NASA became interested in a more passive control system that required less energy and maintenance from both engineers and astronauts. PCMs such as lithium chloride were already in use for the heat management of instruments used in space; however, these materials were not “suitable for textile applications” (Mansfield). Pulling from heat transfer basics and previous PCM applications, NASA decided to make garments that could easily respond to the body’s thermal needs (NASA).