Engineers Create First-Ever Wearable Heating-Cooling Device

(CN) – Engineers at the University of California, San Diego, have designed a wearable patch that offers customizable heating and cooling capabilities in virtually any environment.

The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned Renkun Chen, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, to examine the skyrocketing costs associated with heating and cooling office spaces.

“What we learned was just how much resources are going into heating and cooling these spaces, with up to 13% of the energy of the U.S power grid going towards heating and cooling needs,” Chen said.

The UC San Diego associate professor determined that a patch – integrated into a person’s clothing – could control an individual’s temperature, eliminating the need to heat or cool entire office spaces. Such a patch would use a fraction of the energy used by traditional heating and cooling units.

The patch is made of thermoelectric alloys that physically cool or heat the wearer’s skin to their own liking. Ideally, the patch could be placed on any part of the body the wearer wants rapidly chilled or warmed – the back of the neck, hands and feet, or arms.

Armband embedded with flexible battery pack (left), stretchable circuit (center), and cooling/heating patch (right). (David Baillot / UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering)

Chen and his team tested a prototype on a male subject in a controlled-temperature environment. In two minutes, the patch cooled the subject’s skin to a set temperature of 89.6 degrees and kept it at that temperature even as the ambient temperature fluctuated between 71.6 and 96.8 degrees.

However, Chen and his team faced several challenges in developing the patch.  

“The material we use is very rigid,” he said. “This kind of material has never been used quite like this. Other kinds of heated or cooling items are bulky or use water. So making something flexible and wearable has certainly been a challenge.”

He added that more work needs to be done on the patch’s functionality.

“Getting this kind of material to scale is something that can be tricky, and we are working on that,” Chen said. “We also want to get the patch to pair with a mobile device, so the wearer can customize their temperature like a thermostat.”

Researchers estimate that the patch will not be available on the market for a few years, and the ultimate goal is to combine several patches to create smart clothing for personalized temperature comfort. Chen said that it could benefit various professions.

“Firefighters, surgical doctors, even law enforcement officers – all find themselves in less than ideal temperature situations, and this kind of product could make a real difference for them,” Chen said.

He believes that this work could make meaningful progress in cutting back on energy costs and improving people’s lives.

“I’ve been a researcher for over 15 years, and this may be one of the biggest things I have helped create that could actually be truly useful,” Chen said.

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