Researchers tune material’s color and thermal properties separately

Researchers tune material’s color and thermal properties separately
The visual and thermal properties of polyethylene can be tweaked to produce colorful films with a wide range of heat-radiating capabilities. Image: Felice Frankel

The color of a material can often tell you something about how it handles heat. Think of wearing a black shirt on a sweltering summer’s day — the darker the pigment, the warmer you’re likely to feel. Likewise, the more transparent a glass window, the more heat it can let through. A material’s responses to visible and infrared radiation are often naturally linked.

Now MIT engineers have made samples of strong, tissue-like polymer material, the color and heat properties of which they can tailor independently of the other. For instance, they have fabricated samples of very thin black film designed to reflect heat and stay cool. They’ve also made films exhibiting a rainbow of other colors, each made to reflect or absorb infrared radiation regardless of the way they respond to visible light.

The researchers can specifically tune the color and heat properties of this new material to fit the requirements for a host of wide-ranging applications, including colorful, heat-reflecting building facades, windows, and roofs; light-absorbing, heat-dissipating covers for solar panels; and lightweight fabric for clothing, outerwear, tents, and backpacks — all designed to either trap or reflect heat, depending on the environments in which they would be used.

“With this material, everything could look more colorful, because then you wouldn’t be concerned with what color does to the thermal balance of, say, a building, or a window, or your clothing,” says Svetlana Boriskina, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Boriskina is the author of a study that appears today in the journal Optical Materials Express, outlining the new material-engineering technique. Her MIT co-authors are Luis Marcelo Lozano, Seongdon Hong, Yi Huang, Hadi Zandavi, Yoichiro Tsurimaki, Jiawei Zhou, Yanfei Xu, and Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering, along with Yassine Ait El Aoud and Richard Osgood III, both of the Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, in Natick, Massachusetts.

Polymer conductors

For this work, Boriskina was inspired by the vibrant colors in stained-glass windows, which for centuries have been made by adding particles of metals and other natural pigments to glass.

“However, despite providing excellent visual transparency, glass has many limitations as a material,” Boriskina notes. “It is bulky, inflexible, fragile, does not spread heat well, and is obviously not suitable for wearable applications.”

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