Cai recognized as top 35 early-career global pioneer

6/26/2020 Julia Park

Written by Julia Park

Lili Cai
Lili Cai
Assistant Professor Lili Cai has earned a spot on the highly competitive 2020 MIT Technology Review’s 35 Under 35 list.

Established in 1999, the global list recognizes 35 outstanding innovators younger than 35. The awards span a wide range of fields, including biotechnology, materials, computer hardware, energy, transportation, communications, and the web. Those recognized are developing new technology or using creative applications of existing technologies to solve problems. The list also rewards ingenious and elegant work that matters to the world at large.

Honorees are organized among five categories: Inventors, Entrepreneurs, Visionaries, Humanitarians, and Pioneers. Cai won in the Pioneers category for her development of energy-efficient textiles. MechSE alumna Ritu Raman won the award in 2019. 

The 35 winners will be recognized at the virtual Emtech MIT conference in October as well as in Technology Review’s July/August issue.

Read the summary of her work from the Technology Review website:

Lili Cai has created nanomaterial-based textiles the thickness of a normal T-shirt that can keep you warm or cool you off.

Cai’s work takes advantage of the fact that human skin strongly emits infrared radiation in a specific range of wavelengths. By manipulating the ways in which her fabrics block or transmit radiation in this band, she has produced multiple textiles that can have different effects on temperature.

To heat the body, Cai created a metallized polyethylene textile that can minimize heat radiation loss but is still breathable. Compared with normal textiles, it keeps people about 7 °C warmer. Under direct sunlight, her cooling fabric, a novel nanocomposite material, can cool the body by more than 10 °C.

Cai believes it’s extremely important to figure out how to make such textiles look as much as possible like normal clothing. Previous radiative cooling materials could only be produced in white, but in 2019 Cai figured out how to fabricate her textiles in different colors. Her goal is to eventually produce one single adaptive textile that keeps you warm if it’s cold out but cools you off in the heat.

As climate change introduces shifts in weather and temperature patterns globally, people will use even more energy to regulate building temperatures. If she can figure out how to cheaply make her textiles at scale, they will provide an alternative that could help cut those heating and cooling bills.

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This story was published June 26, 2020.