Engineers are developing lightweight AI jackets to keep soldiers warm in the Himalayan winters
In October 2019, Khushboo Patel, an engineering graduate from Surat, was introduced to Neel Panchal, co-founder of graphene manufacturing startup LHP Nanotechnologies.
“At the time, Neel was looking for someone who could use graphene to create a wearable garment for the armed forces,” says Khushboo The better India.
Having worked on a similar project during her exchange semester in the Netherlands, she adds, she feels she would be a good fit.
The duo immediately started working on the concept. Within a month they managed to come up with a preliminary idea.
Khushboo brought in her knowledge gained during her research project and the duo also started reading papers online. As Neel was part of a company that made graphene, they were well aware of the properties of this material.
As Khushboo explains, graphene is extraordinarily versatile, far superior and efficient to its counterparts. What gives the material these properties is its structure, which features strong bonds between the carbon atoms. The atomic arrangement of atoms is such that a layer of material is extremely thin while at the same time being flexible and strong.
A study conducted by scientists at the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute found that clothing made from this material can provide comfort to the wearer whether the temperatures in the area are hot or cold.
This is due to its dynamic thermal radiation property, which means that the layers of graphene could change the emitted radiation depending on the temperature.
Back then, the duo didn’t have a production space to conduct their experiments, so they chose to do it in their home kitchen.
“Blenders, blenders, rolling pins… we used them all to develop the conductive ink that we used in our design,” says Khushboo, adding that it must have taken them nearly 1,000 tries to finally achieve what they have achieved they sought.
After a month of intense work, the duo completed the proof-of-concept of what they called the “heated winter jacket” for army personnel to wear.
In January 2020, they stood in front of the army chief’s house in Delhi, where they presented this concept to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Army Day.
The innovation of the heating jacket
As the duo explains, the jacket is based on the principle that graphene generates heat while consuming little energy. In the months after presenting the idea to the Prime Minister, the duo began work on the model, which they completed in February 2022.
The work took 30 months, they say, because the jacket has several critical components that require special manufacturing processes compared to traditional jackets.
“When we started work, we wanted to base the model on the concept that the user could regulate the heat production at will,” says Khusboo. “But since it was to be designed specifically for the armed forces, it would be an unnecessary burden to have them fiddle with the controls and switches. They shouldn’t have to focus on these trivial aspects when their core mission is so crucial in itself.”
The next step was to focus on developing a mechanism that would ensure the jacket would maintain a comfortable temperature range in automatic mode. However, as the duo would soon discover, ‘comfort’ was subjective – while one employee might want a certain temperature to stay warm, another might find it uncomfortable.
“To meet this challenge, we integrated AI,” says Neel. “The software would learn the wearer’s personal preferences in various settings within a short period of time and then adjust to their comfortable temperature.”
Helping men on the front lines keep warm
While the jacket’s selling point was its ability for ‘smart’ thermal regulation, there are a number of other features that make it a handy utility product.
“The graphene material offers effective protection against extreme cold down to minus 50 degrees Celsius,” says Khushboo, adding that the nature of the printed electronics ensures that it does not cause the wearer any discomfort and feels light.
“It eliminates the need to wear multiple layers of warm clothing,” she adds.
It adds that the overlapped front creates an efficient barrier against extremely cold and chilly winds, keeping the wearer protected down to minus 30 degrees Celsius even without a heating system.
However, a major obstacle in developing the jacket was the lack of appropriate technology.
“Smart wearables are still in a very young stage in India and require a lot of experimentation to build a manufacturing facility,” says Khushboo.
“The existing industrial infrastructure is not suitable for prototyping,” says Neel, adding that they rented a space in Surat for 12 months to carry out their work since they did not have a production unit.
“In addition, due to the uniqueness of the product, we had to modify the equipment and tools to make numerous components of the jacket,” he says, adding that when developing these elements, military personnel stationed in extreme climatic conditions were taken into account , there were many Parameters that needed to be worked on.
“The most important parameters were the efficiency of the jacket, which ensures lightness, longer service life, durability and flexibility. Every element had to be redesigned to withstand the harsh conditions,” he adds.
However, the duo say that every limitation they faced along the way only made them try harder and come up with more ideas.
Along the road
The jacket is currently being tested, says Khushboo.
“In the coming winter, the jackets will be sent to the Army Design Bureau, from where they will be sent to staff in Ladakh and Siachen,” she adds.
Once the jacket’s performance has been evaluated, it will be ready for sale in January.
While the prototype they created was intended for the armed forces, which often must survive in harsh climates, Khushboo is working towards launching a civilian version by the end of November 2022.
The army version is said to cost between 85,000 and 1,05,000 rupees while the civilian version could cost between 25,000 and 65,000 rupees. The company is partially bootstrapped – the duo are investing Rs 7,000 – and has received Rs 27,000 worth of government grants.
Khushboo says that alongside the jacket, work has also been done on developing apparel-based smart wearables.
“We are focused on developing next-generation smart lifestyle products using nanotechnology, as well as processes, systems, equipment and tools to support mass manufacturing of these smart products.”
Graphene clothing stays comfortable, hot or cold by Materials Today, published July 1, 2020.
Edited by Divya Sethu