Smart sportswear promises a dry and comfortable experience

The Paris 2024 Summer Olympics are fast approaching and a global sports frenzy is underway. However, intense training in summer often leads to sportswear absorbing excessive sweat, becoming sticky and bulky, causing discomfort and potentially impacting performance. A research team from the School of Fashion and Textiles at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) has developed the iActive™ sportswear range, which features a root-like fluid transport system and a skin-like active sweat dissipater and uses nature-inspired heat-wicking textile fabrics to accelerate sweat removal, effectively reducing the weight and stickiness of sportswear caused by sweat accumulation during exercise.

The human body has millions of sweat glands that are essential for regulating body temperature by dissipating sweat to evaporate it to cool the skin surface. With continued greenhouse gas emissions, the number of very hot days each year is expected to increase significantly. This will lead to increased energy consumption and sweating during physical activity and outdoor work. Even when wearing highly breathable clothing with good wicking properties, people can still experience discomfort due to excessive sweat accumulation.

A research team led by Dr. SHOU Dahua, a young researcher in advanced textile technologies and associate professor at the School of Fashion and Textiles at PolyU, has invented the revolutionary iActive™, an electrically activated smart sportswear with an active sweating function inspired by nature. This pioneering innovation has received significant recognition, including a gold medal at the 49th Geneva International Exhibition of Inventions in April.

Its nature-inspired technologies, including low-voltage artificial “sweat glands” created by skin-like heat-wicking fabrics and a root-shaped branched liquid transport system that aligns with the body’s sweat map, can actively and programmably wick sweat to a sweat dissipater located in the lower part of the sportswear. The all-fabric sweat dissipater is compact and operates at a safe output voltage of approximately 5 to 9 V, and its battery is easy to detach from the clothes, allowing users to wash clothes repeatedly by hand or in a washing machine to maintain hygiene. When the human body’s sweat rate is low, iActive™ can still be used independently without the battery.

Based on the optimized wettability model and gradient, the research team uses a skin-like fabric to rapidly transport sweat in one direction and dissipate it from the inside to the outside. This feature reduces the stickiness and weight of the clothing, improves breathability, and ensures that the clothing remains dry and comfortable to wear. Experimental results indicate that iActive™ creates a breathable and dry skin microclimate by dissipating sweat at a rate three times faster than the maximum human sweating rate. This innovation can also prevent discomfort due to cold and dampness after a workout. Compared with traditional fabrics, iActive™ textile materials are 60% lighter and 50% less sticky when soaked, providing the wearer with complete comfort and allowing sports enthusiasts and athletes to perform at their best.

Additionally, a mobile app facilitates personalized sweat management by wirelessly adjusting the sweat level of iActive™. This innovation is versatile and can be seamlessly integrated into a variety of textile materials to facilitate sustainable mass production. Beyond sportswear, iActive™ is also

well suited for protective clothing and workwear for people engaged in prolonged, high-intensity physical work and outdoor occupations, including healthcare professionals, construction workers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others, thereby significantly improving their work performance.

Dr. Shou Dahua said, “Extreme weather and high temperatures resulting from global warming have increased the importance of heatstroke prevention and cooling measures globally. Drawing on the striking phenomena of thermal insulation and directed liquid flow in nature, we aim to promote innovation and sustainable progress in clothing manufacturing by inventing smart clothing and materials to address global challenges. We seek to harness the power of technology to inject new perspectives into the traditional clothing industry, thereby enhancing its competitiveness.”

Their research team has also developed a high-end fabric called Omni-Cool-Dry™, inspired by beetles that live in volcanoes. This fabric not only enables ultra-fast sweat dissipation and ensures all-day comfort thanks to its cooling, dry and breathable characteristics in dynamic thermal conditions, but it also reflects solar radiation and emits body heat into the cold universe, thus enabling passive cooling. The team is working hard to exploit the advantages of these two inventions to further improve the sweat dissipation and cooling capacity of iActive™ sportswear.

Dr. Shou Dahua, a core member of the PolyU Research Institute for Intelligent Wearable Systems and the Research Center for Textiles for Future Fashion, was recently awarded the Fiber Society Distinguished Achievement Award 2023 for his outstanding contributions in the fields of personal thermal and moisture management, smart clothing, and soft robotics. This award is presented annually to an individual researcher from around the world. He has also received international innovation awards, including the consecutive TechConnect Global Innovation Awards in 2021 and 2022. In addition, his research papers have been published in various internationally renowned academic journals, including Science Advances, PNAS, Advanced Functional Materials, and Advanced Energy Materials. Dr. Shou will chair the Fiber Society Spring Conference 2025 at PolyU.

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