Could high-tech clothing fight climate change? The Bay Area startup thinks so

Heating and cooling buildings consume energy. Cooling, the biggest consumer, accounts for about one-fifth of energy use in the United States, according to US Energy Information Administration – and that number is expected to grow rapidly as the world heats up.

Stanford professor Yi Cui wants to reduce that with “smart clothes” that keep their wearers cool or warm, so they don’t have to turn up the thermostat or turn down the air conditioning.

His Sunnyvale startup, LifeLabs, sells clothes that look and function like regular sportswear, but are made from high-tech fabric he invented to regulate body temperature.

“We spend so much energy cooling in the summer and warming in the winter to make people feel comfortable indoors,” said Stanford professor of materials science and engineering Cui. and director of its Precourt Institute for Energy. “If the air conditioning in the summer could turn up 3 degrees Celsius, you could save around 30% of a building’s energy consumption. Each degree Celsius saves 10%.”

The reverse would be true in winter: saving energy by turning down the thermostat if people’s clothes could keep them warm.

LifeLabs’ products include shirts, pants, shorts, windbreakers, jackets, vests, pants, and pajamas, as well as bedding items like sheets and pillowcases. A cooling short-sleeved button-up shirt sells for $69 and a cooling windbreaker with SPF protection costs $129, for example.

But for clothing to significantly reduce the energy used to heat and cool buildings, LifeLabs and similar products would need to be widely adopted – by individual consumers and, more importantly, by corporate customers.

Imagine a factory, warehouse, or school where everyone wears temperature-controlled cloth uniforms. These giant buildings could then control their energy consumption. “If you could get a whole factory of workers to wear it, it could have a huge impact,” Cui said.

Backed by $13.8 million in venture capital, the 12-person LifeLabs has sold fewer than 10,000 garments since launching its direct-to-consumer sales last fall. Cui acknowledges that he needs a lot more marketing to get his name out there. It hopes to grow by partnering with major clothing manufacturers and other business entities such as workplaces.

Using clothes to conserve energy has not always been a popular concept. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Pres. Jimmy Carter was met with derision when he urged Americans to wear sweaters so they could turn down their thermostats.

But in the half-century since then, attitudes have shifted as the pace of global warming has accelerated. Energy experts said any quick and inexpensive way to get energy consumption under control has merit, compared to cumbersome solutions such as constructing new buildings.

“Getting customers to make small changes on demand is a cost-effective way to reduce the need for additional network hardware, whether it’s more production, more storage, or more transmission,” wrote Severin Borenstein, professor and faculty director of the Energy Institute at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, in a Blog post, although not specifically discussing clothing.

But Borenstein was skeptical of the LifeLabs concept, saying in an email that social norms rather than technical clothing is what needs to change. For example, he said, “Japan declared a Hawaiian shirt summer after the Fukushima disaster and the associated power shortage they experienced the following summer. They turned the thermostats up to 82 degrees and it was considered a big hit.Also sweaters/sweatshirts and thick socks are a good way to keep warm in winter.

“Bedding seems like a bigger breakthrough because there’s a lot of talk about how to sleep cooler and the importance of sleeping in a cool room,” he said.

Donald Wulfinghoff, who heads the Energy Institute Press, which publishes guides to energy conservation, was even less enthusiastic about the concept.

“Claims about saving heating and cooling energy almost certainly fall into the category of ‘greenwashing,'” he wrote in an email.

But LifeLabs investors — who, of course, aren’t impartial — see it as a potential game-changer.

“We strongly believe that advancements in technology will have a huge impact in tackling the climate crisis by enabling the individual to reduce their personal energy consumption,” Bo Bai, founder of Asia Green Fund, said in a statement. In April, his company led a $6 million funding round in LifeLabs.

Recently, Cui wore a dark polo shirt and beige pants that are indistinguishable from typical Silicon Valley clothing, both made from CooLife textiles. “You can feel the chill right away,” he said, touching his shirt.

He showed a rack of LifeLabs items. Its WarmLife garments trap human infrared radiation using a thin, porous metallic coating sandwiched between ordinary textiles, he said. An entire jacket uses about as much aluminum as a paperclip and is about a third lighter than a down jacket, Cui said.

“If you put your hands inside, in 5 or 10 seconds, you can feel the heat build up; I feel it right away,” Cui said, demonstrating.

WarmLife is made from 97% recycled materials, according to the company. Its nylon fiber is pre-consumer, such as fabric scraps and yarn waste, while its polyester is post-consumer, recycled from used bottles.

CoolLife fabric is woven from polyethylene, the same material as supermarket plastic bags. “CoolLife is made from virgin yarn going forward, with the goal of arriving at recycled material in the future,” the company said.

Cui said his approach is superior to other cooling fabrics that use mesh weaves — essentially holes — to let body heat escape. “We do the cooling before the sweat comes out,” he said. “I don’t think any other cooling technology can do that.”

The field of “climate clothing” is still so nascent that there are no independent studies to prove or disprove LifeLabs’ claims, and the company could not appoint outside experts familiar with its work. .

Of course, there are rivals. Companies of sony at under protection sell thermoregulatory clothing and other university laboratories such as University of San Diego and the university of maryland announced breakthroughs in thermoregulatory fabrics. A quick search on Amazon yields over 4,000 matches for “temperature-controlled clothing.” These are largely traditional items such as thermal underwear and moisture-wicking t-shirts; some are edgier, like electric heated underwear with Bluetooth controls.

LifeLabs tests its garments using special mannequins that mimic human heat generation. Dummies’ temperature sensors show that CoolTech can lower body temperature by 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, Cui said.

Next on its drawing board is a bifunctional fabric that could both heat and cool as the temperature changes throughout the day. It hasn’t been released yet but already has a name: DualLife.

“Anytime you have a big temperature difference between day and night, or when you get hot when running and cooler when standing still, that would be helpful for DualLife,” Cui said.

Carolyn Said is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @csaid

Comments are closed.