Breathability and moisture-wicking properties are two important characteristics that every outdoor athlete looks for in their workout apparel. If a garment is breathable, it allows heat to escape the body, keeping runners and cyclists cooler as a result. And if a garment also has the ability to wick away perspiration, it will keep them drier as well. Unfortunately, while a lot of sportswear promises to deliver in these two areas, their products often underperform when put to use in the field. But a new technical fabric from a company called Atacama is looking to change all that by delivering a potential breakthrough product that could revolutionize the way we work out.
Named for the Atacama Desert in northern Chile – the driest place on the planet – the company says that it has created the “world’s first ‘biometric‘ moisture-channeling system.” What that means is that researchers have found a way to not just wick moisture from the body, but to actually collect it and channel it away through tiny three-dimensional channels. This not only allows sweat to dissipate rapidly, but it has the added benefit of also keeping the article of clothing almost completely dry, even during intense aerobic activities.
The secret behind Atacama’s fabrics lies in microfluidics, which is the study of how liquids move when constrained on a microscopic level. In this case, the moisture is collected from the body, pulled into the fabric, and then channeled into tiny pathways that push it away. The result is a garment that won’t become oversaturated no matter how hot and humid the weather or how sweaty the athlete becomes. This prevents activewear from sticking to skin, while also providing a more natural method of cooling the body.
One of the biggest challenges that the Atacama team faced when developing its new fabrics was figuring out how to create three-dimensional channels in thin, lightweight textiles. To achieve that, they had to first study the production process closely, eventually coming to the realization that it was not unlike microfabrication methods used to create computer chips. Eventually, they discovered that through the use of extremely fine knitting as part of the construction process, they could create channels that were as small as a single loop of thread, which is about 100 micrometers in diameter. Once that became possible, the dynamics of microfludics simply took over.
According to Atacama’s website, sports apparel made with its technical fabrics stayed 12 times drier than competing materials, and were three times lighter during high-intensity workouts. That’s good news to outdoor athletes who have endured soaked shirts and shorts for years while running and cycling in humid conditions.
As of now, Atacama hasn’t announced any partners who are using its fabrics, but there appears to be a lot of interest. It makes perfect sense that it would be used in fitness and outdoor apparel, although Susan Neal, the company’s CEO, recently told TechCrunch that inquiries have gone well beyond that. “We’ve been asked to look at car seats,” she says. “What we’re finding is that there is a lot of interest in this technology to keep moisture and spilled drinks away from electronics in autonomous cars.”