This episode really hit home with me for a few reasons:
- I have a PhD in biomimicry, the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes. So I love the concept of PowerWool, which builds on and improves the natural technology of sheep’s coats.
- I am passionate about climate change, social justice, and how engineers, entrepreneurs, and corporations can help people and the planet, and Cotopaxi is a mission-driven company whose motto is “Gear for Good.”
- I’ve been thinking about power wool since hanging out with the CEO of Polartec, who loves the properties of wool but recognized there’s weakness in its durability. That’s why he spearheaded the PowerWool project.
In particular, this episode got me thinking about the difference between, and science behind, synthetic fibers – or polymers – and natural fibers.
Polymers are created by combining a bunch of monomers in long chains. These chains have really strong backbones, and when they are wound together, form a synthetic fiber. We can engineer the fibers to change the individual monomers, which affects the chemical properties and how the chains interact. But it’s really fairly crude, in that we have to alter all the monomers in the same case, or maybe a few different types of monomers.
The natural fiber is much more complex. Its base unit is a helical molecule that winds together with other helical molecules to form a filament. These filaments are then set in a matrix of proteins that act as a glue holding them together. In a sense, it’s much like the resin holding carbon fibers together. The filament is strength, and the matrix allows the filaments the ability to move relative to each other allowing the material to bend, not break.
So filaments wind together and then are mundele to form microfibrils, and then the microbrils are bundled to form macrofibrils. And then those macrobrils bundle in a matrix to form another long filament called a cortex, which is then bundled to form the actual wool fiber. Depending on the matrix protein holding the microfibrils together to form macrofibrils, there can be two types of cortexes.
What fascinates me is that one cortex can absorb a lot more water than the other. This means that when wool gets wet, because the two different cortical cells assemble on different sides of the wool fiber, one side will expand more than the other. When that happens, the entire fiber bends.
Why in the world would biology evolve for this to happen? As it turns out, when the wool fibers bend, it causes them to trap more air. Trapping air is what good insulation does. By restricting air movement, the movement of heat is also restricted.
This is great for sheep, who live in wet climates. It means that when it rains, their wool becomes warmer. And when it’s dry, and warmer, the wool is a worse insulator, allowing them to keep cool. What a cool material!
But wait, there’s more! The fibers of the wool are coated with a waxy lanolin which is hydrophilic. This means that water doesn’t like the fibers and so doesn’t stay on the surface. Water is essential for bacterial growth. So guess what? No water, no bacteria, and NO SMELL.
After filming this episode, Cotopaxi gave me the Toliman hoodie. I tested it on an epic adventure, involving a variety of climates and a combination of both urban and outdoor living, including:
- A beach vacation on a private island in French Polynesia
- Burning Man
- Business meetings, time with friends, trips to the beach, and shooting episodes of Outrageous Acts of Science in Los Angeles
- Hiking, dancing, and dinners out in San Francisco
- A conference and outdoor adventuring in Morocco and China
- Hiking and exploring in Joshua Tree
I was impressed that the hoodie really did hold up in all those conditions, including all the transit in between, and kept me warm and smelling good (no small feat).
Much of the footage from this episode is from my trip to Morocco. I flew to Marrakesh for COP22, a global climate change conference, where I met some amazing, adventurous people. After the conference, 17 of us took off together to explore the people, culture, and countryside with my friend Yasmine El Baggari, the founder of Voyaj, a travel app that connects locals to social entrepreneur-type travelers interested in authentic adventures that encourage forward-thinking global perspectives.
While on the trip, I really wanted to find some sheep, but it wasn’t till we were driving through the desert of Morocco that we saw some. Luckily, the herders were down for me to do some chasing. I was shooting with my Samsung s7 edge with a gyro-stabilizer (see below for links). And also luckily, my buddy Jeremy McKane had his Canon 5D mark IV, so he could film me running around like an idiot.