Cai wins young investigator award for wearables research

11/16/2023 Urim Song Zhu

Prof. Lili Cai has been awarded research funding from the Office of Naval Research Young Investigators Program (ONR YIP). She will continue her work on textile thermoregulation capabilities, this time for use in various climate-related emergency scenarios such as high-temperature climates and cold-water immersion - relevant to the health of shipboard personnel.

Written by Urim Song Zhu

Lili CaiMechSE Assistant Professor Lili Cai was granted the 2024 Office of Naval Research Young Investigators Program (ONR YIP) award. She is one of just 24 recipients nationwide to be awarded this competitive funding. 

The ONR YIP award, which comes from a highly competitive program geared toward outstanding young investigators, is typically given to assistant professors. The program’s goal is to support the research of young faculty. ONR YIP awards are distributed in different categories of research that will greatly benefit marine operations and propose innovative solutions to Navy and Marine Corps warfighter challenges. Cai’s research is categorized within Warfighter Performance Code 34

Current smart wearable technology has many widespread uses, some examples including their use for tracking and health emergencies. However, these devices lack thermoregulation capabilities. Cai’s study, “Passive and Adaptive Thermoregulation Wearables with Integrated Sensing for Shipboard Emergency Response,” focuses on textile thermoregulation capabilities for use in various climate-related emergency scenarios such as high-temperature climates and cold-water immersion. Aiming to develop a smart wearable technology that has both passive and adaptive thermoregulation, Cai’s work falls within the basic physiological program, which cares for health and operation relevant to shipboard personnel. 

Fundamentally, there are three different passageways for heat transfer: conduction, convection, and radiation. Cai is working to engineer a textile that can take advantage of humans’ natural emissivity, or ability to emit radiation. The human body has an emissivity (the ability to emit) of approximately 0.98, where 1.0 indicates strong emission and 0.0 means no emission. The design of such a textile is complex in that the material must be able to use this radiative property to regulate body temperature.

Furthermore, controlling the heating and cooling behavior for such a wearable will be challenging. Cai is exploring two potential solutions: first, to use active thermal regulation, in which electric stimulation is used to help modulate thermal regulation by changing material structures under different conditions. The second solution is to use passive thermal regulation, which does not rely on external electricity. This solution would allow for more flexibility in conditions that lack a power source. Ultimately, the design may end up utilizing both types, with active providing a higher degree of regulation and passive enabling use during emergencies. 

Additionally, Cai wants to integrate multiple functions including sensors to monitor user conditions. The ultimate goal is to achieve intelligent response, which will be accomplished by researching manufacturing, fundamental material behavior, thermal science, sensing and integration testing. 

These developments have the potential to significantly improve smart wearable technologies and decrease the dangers experienced not only by sailors and marines but also first responders working in extreme environments. 

Share this story

This story was published November 16, 2023.