This Breathable Workout Suit Stops Sweat

This Breathable Workout Suit Stops Sweat

By Rebecca Alexander

One troublesome side-effect of working out is dealing with the sweat and stink that follow. This problem magnifies when one has to commute back to work/home or simply be around other people. This can be a major deterrent to people with busy schedules, if not the sole excuse for their forgotten gym membership. Recent products developed by a multidisciplinary team working on project bioLogic, consisting of mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, architects, biological engineers, fashion designers and researchers from New Balance Athletics, shows promise to circumvent this concern.

The team, led by Wen Wang and Lining Yao under MIT’s Tangible Media group which is led by Hiroshi Ishii, have developed a breathable workout suit.This innovative workout suit is able to sense the heat and sweat on an athlete’s body to ventilate the body by corresponding opening and closing of ventilation flaps which are strategically placed on the suit.

Development of the Breathable Workout Suit

Needless to say, a moisture-responsive workout suit requires some kind of a sensor to detect changes caused in the wearer’s body. Instead of using any conventional temperature/moisture detectors, the team at MIT decided to use a natural shape-shifter and started off with the most prevalent, non-pathogenic strain of E. coli. Not only did this strain of E. coli expand and contract as a result of changing humidity but it was also genetically engineered to glow by expressing a green fluorescent protein in response to humid conditions. Using a cell-printing method, these genetically modified E. coli are printed on natural latex sheets. While the fabric curls upon exposure to heat (dry conditions) because of the contraction of E. coli cells, it flattens out when exposed to steam (wet conditions) due to the expansion of cells. Moreover, there was no dramatic degradation of the fabric even when it is subject to about hundred cycles of alternating heat and steam.

Thanks to advancements in genetic engineering, these microbial cells can be modified to suit the intended application. In addition to being safe for consumption, these microbial cells are rapidly produced in large quantities. A major benefit is that the microbial cells can be genetically engineered to express one or more different characteristics in response to moisture, for example, shape-shifting, glowing, fragrance-releasing, etc.

Developing Flaps Based on Heat and Sweat Maps

After developing the idea of a two-layer fabric, the scientists worked on designing the ventilation flaps along with their sizes and location on the suit. For this, they relied on sweat and heat maps of the human body. One might assume the two maps are identical, however, Yao justifies the difference in certain areas based on a previous study. For example, the lower spine produces a significantly higher amount of sweat than heat. In order to better adapt the suit to the heat and sweat maps, bigger flaps are found at relatively more heated areas. Thin support frames prevent the two-layer fabric flap from directly touching the skin but allows the cells to respond to moisture changes.

A trial run of this workout suit was conducted where the temperature and humidity of the participants were monitored using sensors. As expected, the flaps were observed to open when the participants felt warm and worked up a sweat. Sensors revealed that this opening of flaps effectively cooled the exposed area and got rid of the sweat, the effect is much more pronounced when compared with a plain workout suit.    

After successfully testing the workout suit with flaps, the team has also implemented the same principle to develop a similar prototype of running shoes. Since sweating occurs on the bottom side of feet, flaps are integrated on the sole of the shoes. Once again, the cell-lined fabric does not directly touch the feet but keeps it dry. Use of these shoes can prevent discomfort and diseases like warts, which are caused by sweat accumulation.

Next Steps to Commercialize Breathable Workout Suits

An obvious next step for the researchers is to commercialize these products by collaboration with companies in the sportswear industry. Though currently targeted for the sports industry, moisture-sensitive products can find application in various other industries as well. Products like moisture-sensitive curtains or bed sheets are expected find takers in the home decor industry while sensory packaging can revolutionize the packaging industry. One of the researchers at MIT, Xuanhe Zhao expects this new field of ‘living’ materials and devices to find important applications at the interface between engineering and biological systems. Here’s hoping the moisture-sensitive workout suit and shoes hit sportswear shelves soon and motivate more gym enthusiasts to become their fittest selves!

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