Dr. Yi Cui on Inventing Textiles for the Future

15 October 2021

Manasseh Franklin

It’s only fitting that I interviewed Professor Yi Cui while he was traveling to Moscow to accept the Global Energy Award. The prestigious award, given to only three scientists around the world each year, is in the category "New ways of energy application" for his contributions in nanomaterials design, synthesis and characterisation for energy and the environment, particularly for transformational innovations in battery science. It’s the latest in Dr. Cui’s recognition of his innovative efforts to advance energy and materials in the modern world.

Now in his sixteenth year of energy research, Dr. Cui, along with his wife, Meng Cui, co-founded LifeLabs to offer everyday consumers access to sustainable and efficient heating and cooling technologies. We called Dr. Cui up to talk about how LifeLabs came to be and hear his vision for how the technology used in LifeLab’s products can change the way we use energy for good.

MF: How did you first get involved in energy research?

YC: It was back in 2005 when I joined the Stanford faculty, Professor Steve Chu, the Nobel Prize Winner who would later become Secretary of Energy, gave a speech. He was so encouraging and motivating for young scientists to work on clean energy to fight climate change. That was one of the important reasons I got interested in energy, coming to Stanford and hearing Dr. Chu. I immediately started the energy research program on renewable energy and energy storage which later led to LifeLabs cooling and warming textile technology.

MF: How did your research on HVAC and building energy lead you to develop LifeLabs?

YC: To save building energy consumption, you have to change the temperature set during wintertime and summertime. In summertime, you don’t want the setting to be so cool and in the wintertime not so warm. Every 1 degree Celsius changed you can save 10% of the energy. With 2 degrees, you save 20%, 3 degrees you save 30%. That’s a lot of energy saving.

If you have much better textile energy in the summertime, you can cool down your body. Then you can change your air conditioning setting and still feel relatively comfortable. In the winter, you can warm up your body and change your heat setting. The correlation is right here: better warming or cooling textiles will allow you to save building energy, allow you to reduce the amount of CO2, and we can all get to carbon neutral earlier.

MF: What was the moment when you realized that textiles could be an important part of this equation?

YC: That textiles could be an important part of this equation wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise is when we went to invent the cooling textile--how do we do that? Cooling is the hardest one because we want to control human body heat going out through radiation. What are the available materials that can work?

We had the aha moment: if we can make PE [polyethylene], this very low cost polymer that is transparent for radiation, that is to say it allows the heat to go out directly, without blocking. After, we think that we really need to do is infrared transparent PE, but it needs to be reasonably opaque.

Warming wasn’t as hard as cooling. The aha moment was when we realized the cooling idea could work.

MF: Once you realized that and started working with the PE, how has your approach to the technology evolved in terms of the potential for these fabrics?

YC: After the technology was invented, we figured out the basic physics on how it works. How to do cooling, how to do warming. The rest of the study is how to make these into real products, that is, how to do manufacturing.

The textile needs to go through certain testing. It needs to feel good on the body, needs to be breathable, and needs to have that mechanical stretch so when you pull on it you don’t break it. It also needs to be washable many many times and still feel good.

fabric swatches on table

MF: Now that LifeLabs has come to life and is about to launch, what are your priorities moving forward?

YC: The first priority of course is to successfully get this product into people’s hands and on people’s bodies. Also, to develop these technologies into many more products. Not just what you wear on the body but also bedding material. I’ve been trying that in my bed for the past 2 months now and it’s sensational, the cooling it provides.

I also see this being used in the interior of the car or in the house, in the curtains for instance. So we’d like to explore those applications.

The second priority is to continue to invent even better technology. We have invented the warmest textile in the world that’s still very lightweight. Can we now do radiative cooling during exercise when you have sweat coming out? This requires new technology design and new thinking. I’m working on some of that right now and have some very interesting data.

Also, we try to keep pushing the sustainability goal. We not only have performance but also build in circular economy by recycling and reusing materials. We will continue to push the envelope along that direction.

MF: What do you see as the ultimate potential for this kind of materials technology?

YC: This technology can adjust a $4.1 billion [global textile] market. Ultimately, anywhere you see textile, not only on people’s bodies but on bedding, curtains and inside a car. In the future, if these kinds of technology borrow the same physics, they can be used in new type of building materials. This general controlling of heat flow through thermoregulation control will be a general motive to so many applications.