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Polar bear hair inspires stealth fabric

A cape made from porous fibers traps heat and hides a bunny from night-vision cameras

by Mark Peplow
February 21, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 9

A laboratory rabbit wearing a biomimetic textile in a photograph compared with an IR camera photograph.
Credit: Adv. Mater.
A lab rabbit wearing a cloak with fibers that mimic polar bear hair (top left) is invisible to a thermal imaging camera (top right). Under a polyester cape (bottom left), the bunny’s cover is blown (bottom right).

Hide your lettuce and lock up the carrots: Stealth rabbits are on the prowl. Researchers have woven a cloak that makes a bunny almost invisible to infrared cameras, thanks to fibers that mimic the structure of polar bear hairs (Adv. Mater. 2018, DOI: 10.1002/adma.201706807).

The hairs of a polar bear have a hollow core, which reflects back IR emissions from the animal’s body. This structure helps prevent heat loss and keeps the bears warm in their Arctic environments.

But the hairs have an added advantage: They can conceal the bears from thermal imaging cameras used in many night-vision devices. Textiles that can mimic polar bear hair’s IR-reflecting abilities might be useful in stealth applications, such as concealing soldiers. Previous attempts to make synthetic versions of the hairs have produced fibers that are too weak to be practically useful.

A team from Zhejiang University has now used a freeze-spinning method to make fibers that are porous, strong, and highly thermally insulating. They consist of fibroin, a protein found in silk, along with a small amount of the polysaccharide chitosan.

Credit: Adv. Mater.
The porous fiber could be woven into a textile with thermal stealth properties.
Scanning electron micrograph shows the structure of a textile woven from the biomimetic fibers.
Credit: Adv. Mater.
The porous fiber could be woven into a textile with thermal stealth properties.

The researchers slowly squeezed a viscous, watery mixture of these materials through a cold copper ring, forming a frozen fiber that contained flat ice crystals. Freeze-drying the fibers removed the ice by sublimation to produce strong fibers about 200 µm wide with up to 87% porosity. After varying conditions such as the viscosity of the mixture and the temperature of the ring, they found that running the process at -100 °C produced pores about 30 µm across, which offered the best balance between strength and thermal insulation. “I was surprised to see the thermal conductivity of the biomimetic fiber was even lower than polar bear hair,” says Hao Bai, who led the team.

Credit: Adv. Mater.
Preparing the fur-mimicking fibers at -100 °C produced pores about 30 µm across.
Scanning electron micrograph shows the cross section of a porous fiber.
Credit: Adv. Mater.
Preparing the fur-mimicking fibers at -100 °C produced pores about 30 µm across.

It’s not the first time that this ice-templating method has been used to make porous fibers, says Sylvain Deville, research director of the Ceramic Synthesis and Functionalization Laboratory, who uses the method in his own research. But, he says, the team demonstrated good control of the fiber structures.

To demonstrate the thermal stealth potential of the fibers, the researchers wove them into a textile to make a little cape for a live lab rabbit. The critter’s body heat was all but invisible by thermal imaging, whether the background temperature was 40 °C, 15 °C or -10 °C.

As an encore, the Zhejiang team produced an electrically-conductive textile by adding carbon nanotubes to the mixture of fiber precursors. Applying a voltage of 5 V raised the conductive fabric’s temperature from 24 °C to 36 °C in less than one minute—not useful for stealth, but potentially helpful for keeping winter clothing cozy. “It’s interesting that they’re able to introduce different materials, so they can combine different functionalities,” Deville says.

Bai has patented the freeze-spinning technique, and hopes to develop the fiber into a commercial product. However, Deville notes that the freeze-spinning process is currently quite slow. “I suspect they will never be able to go very fast, so they may not be able to use it for large-scale applications.”.


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