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Future Fabrics: High-tech materials attempt to beat mother nature at her own game

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December 6, 2011

Mountain Hardwear's Dry.Q water-proof breathable fabric is among a new breed of sporting a...

Mountain Hardwear's Dry.Q water-proof breathable fabric is among a new breed of sporting apparel (Photo: Athlete Ueli Steck, Photo Credit: Robert Bosch / Mountain Hardware)

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Outdoor sports equipment has evolved thoroughly over the years, from simple designs crafted out of everyday materials like wood and twine to advanced, highly specialized gear composed of space-age materials like carbon and Kevlar. This evolution has empowered generation upon generation of elite athletes to push their sports to more difficult terrain, more distant locations and more awe-inspiring feats. The better the gear, the better the sport.

The evolution of outdoor apparel technology has been on a much slower track. Many materials that dominate today's outdoor clothes - wool and down, for instance - have been plucked straight from nature for hundreds of years. While textile manufacturers and clothing companies have tried to improve upon natural designs, they've generally failed to come up with anything that unequivocally surpasses Mother Nature. Meanwhile, the disadvantages of staple fabrics persist, limiting athletes. While lack of fabric innovation doesn't necessarily ground athletes' ambitions altogether, it does complicate logistics and make their lives more difficult and less comfortable.

Just beyond the action videos and gear shops, though, a new dawn is breaking. An improved generation of materials with the potential to displace stale staples is slowly moving from test labs to retail shelves. If these materials can brave the real world and live up to the hype, outdoor apparel - and outdoor sports - will look very different in the future.

Zero-Loft Aerogels

For centuries, the big, puffy down jacket has stood as a symbol of exotic cold-weather adventure in the likes of Mount Everest and Antarctica. Nothing man-made has touched the warmth-to-weight ratio of down.

Down may be warm and comfy, but it's not without its negatives. Down's warming ability relies on its loft, making it thick and bulky. When down gets wet or compacted, its loft diminishes and its warming value decreases markedly.

Zero-Loft Aerogels is a material that aims to supplant down as the ultimate in cold-weather insulation. It is a thin, flexible silica gel-based material that consists of more than 90 percent air. It does not rely on loft, offering two to three times the thermal performance of down without the fluffy bulk. Zero-Loft Aerogels material is not prone to failure from pressure or moisture, so the fabric maintains its thermal properties regardless of the conditions.

Far from an experimental material, Zero-Loft Aerogels has been used in demanding insulation applications in multi-billion dollar industries like aerospace and petroleum transport.

In 2010, sportswear company Hanesbrands debuted the experimental Supersuit, an Aerogels-based outerwear jacket just 3 mm thick. The suit's initial test leg was a Mount Everest expedition. Met with temperatures as low as -40°F (-40°C), team leader Jamie Clarke said the jacket was the warmest he'd ever worn, particularly in low-aerobic situations. Research on the suit and its market implications remains ongoing.

More than a one-trick pony, Zero-Loft Aerogels has the ability to insulate from heat as well as cold. Aerogels insoles have protected runners from the staggering heat of the Sahara Desert. Because it has the lowest thermal conductivity of any solid, Aerogels is able to keep athletes' feet protected and limber even in extreme 120+°F (49°C) temperatures.

Berghaus Hydrophobic Down

You don't necessarily have to compete against down to innovate. U.K. outdoor clothing company Berghaus recently took more of collaborative approach. Since many manufacturers before it failed to effectively deliver a synthetic with down's same combination of warmth, light weight and compactable build, Berghaus decided to simply address down's major con: failure in wet conditions.

Berghaus Hydrophobic Down

Hydrophobic down is quite possibly the simplest, smartest solution to down's nagging downfall. The down is coated in durable water repellent (DWR) prior to being stuffed into Berghaus' clothing. Unlike regular down, which gets matted and loses insulation value the minute the rain starts, the DWR-coated down retains up to 80 percent of its loft after three minutes in water. Simply put, you can wear your water-resistant down jacket in cold, nasty Pacific Northwest rain storms and still enjoy that warm, fuzzy feeling. Berghaus uses a mixture of hydrophobic down and Primaloft insulation in its new Mount Asgard Hybrid jacket.

Air Permeable Outerwear

For decades, Gore-Tex has been the established leader in waterproof fabric for winter outerwear. Over the past few years, though, discontent with Gore-Tex fabrics has been growing among outdoor enthusiasts. While its ability to protect against water and wind remains unquestioned, Gore-Tex has been criticized for its lack of breathability. With an increasing number of athletes participating in more aerobic forms of winter recreation like ski touring and mountaineering, breathability has become as big a need as waterproofing.

Consumers have had to compromise by choosing either a fully waterproof hard shell or a breathable, less waterproof soft shell. This year, several different fabrics from manufacturers like Polartec and Mountain Hardwear have addressed this forced compromise with a better solution: air permeable fabric.

Unlike Gore-Tex, which relies on the slower process of heat diffusion to vent perspiration, new fabrics like Polartec Neoshell and Mountain Hardwear Dry.Q allow a nominal amount of airflow, helping to more quickly and effectively carry moisture away from your body. Meanwhile, they remain totally water and windproof. You get breathability comparable to a soft shell and waterproofing on par with a hard shell. You stay 100 percent dry from the inside and out.

Polartec Neoshell

Polartec Neoshell

Given the sheer number of manufacturers - Marmot, The North Face, Westcomb, Columbia and others - launching air-permeable jackets this winter, it would be surprising if fabrics like Neoshell and Dry.Q don't gain some sort of foothold in the industry. At the very least, we'd expect them to inspire some air-permeability innovation at W.L. Gore and Associates.

Though innovations in fabric aren't necessarily as exciting as hardware innovations, they have the potential to have just as much impact on the future of outdoor sports. If these fabrics prove themselves, outdoor athletes of all kinds will be able to travel farther, longer and more comfortably.

About the Author
C.C. Weiss Upon graduating college with a poli sci degree, Chris toiled in the political world for several years. Realizing he was better off making cynical comments from afar than actually getting involved in all that mess, he turned away from matters of government and news to cover the things that really matter: outdoor recreation, cool cars, technology, wild gadgets and all forms of other toys. He's happily following the wisdom of his father who told him that if you find something you love to do, it won't really be work.   All articles by C.C. Weiss
8 Comments

now all we need is $500 to buy one of these fancy jackets and $375 for the pants. as usual - the latest and greatest is reserved for people with big bucks. the rest of us have to wait 5 years.

Michael Taylor
7th December, 2011 @ 03:06 am PST

Michael, don't be so quick in your assumptions. If this stuff is as good as Gizmag tells us it is - it will sell itself. Which means that it will replace gore-tex and the like (that includes low-medium-high price amplitude). Can't wait (hate gore-tex)!

Renārs Grebežs
7th December, 2011 @ 06:14 am PST

All the while, turning our backs to the most versatile and least expensive natural alternative : HEMP !

WhyEyeWine
7th December, 2011 @ 08:19 am PST

Do any of these come in silver one piece jump suits?

Joshua David
7th December, 2011 @ 10:36 am PST

Aero gel seems to have remained an exotic with prices to match. Aero gel has been around for over a decade if not over more than one decade and remains way too expensive. It would be wonderful to insulate walls and attics if it were sold at a reasonable price.

Jim Sadler
7th December, 2011 @ 10:50 am PST

@Michael: if you want an inexpensive air-permeable option, check out the Stoic Vaporshell jacket. affordable and very breathable.

@Jim: agreed. although there are some companies that make an aerogel "carpet" style insulation to do exactly that, it's still quite expensive :(

medwards
7th December, 2011 @ 10:57 am PST

I'm fine with my good old fashion newspaper and shredded cardboard. I wrap it in plastic bags so they are more water resistant before I stuff it in my jacket. :)

Hoodoo Yootink
7th December, 2011 @ 11:25 am PST

It was my understanding that monolythic aerogel was expensive, but that as a loose fill it was reasonably innexpensive (not compared with, say, fiberglass or foam, but still pretty decent for high end clothing) Most aerogel doesn't do very well with moisture though, unless it is sealed, so I assume this technology has a workaround.

Also, it's sort of strange to think of being "100 percent dry from the inside and out" - what, is this waterworld? Anyway, it's a strange turn of phrase.

Charles Bosse
7th December, 2011 @ 02:19 pm PST
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