Ultra-lightweight space blankets have been around for a long time. Marathon runners wrap themselves in them to avoid losing body heat after a race. They are very effective, but the amount of heat that they trap is fixed. There is no way to regulate how much heat is trapped or released using a space blanket.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have developed a next-generation, adaptive space blanket that allows users to control their temperature. The inspiration for the design was the skins of various species of squids, octopi and cuttlefish. The ability of these aquatic creatures to camouflage themselves by rapidly changing color is due, in part, to skin cells called chromatophores that can instantly change from tiny points to flattened disks.
The Irvine researchers have developed a material that contains a layer of tiny metal islands that border each other. In the relaxed state, the islands are bunched together, and the material reflects and traps heat, much like a conventional Mylar space blanket. But when the material is stretched, the islands spread apart, which allows infrared radiation to go through and heat to escape.
The researchers envision many other applications for the novel material, including adaptable insulation for buildings and tents that can be adapted to different weather conditions. There is even the possibility of clothing that can be adjusted to suit the comfort of each person.
The new material is lightweight, easy and inexpensive to manufacture, and is durable. It can be stretched and returned to its original state thousands of times. Some day we might all be wrapping ourselves in imitation squid skins.
Photo, posted May 29, 2005, courtesy of Flickr.