Radiative cooling, a phenomenon that allows objects to dissipate heat into the cold depths of space, has a rich and fascinating history spanning thousands of years. From ancient civilizations to modern-day scientists, humans have long sought to harness the power of the atmospheric window to cool their surroundings without the need for electricity.

Ancient Ice Making in Iran and India

The earliest known applications of radiative cooling can be traced back to ancient Iran and India, as far back as 400 BCE. In these hot climates, people constructed shallow earthen pits or ceramic trays, filled them with water, and insulated them with reeds. On clear nights, the water would radiate heat through the atmospheric window (8-13 μm), allowing it to cool and freeze, despite the surrounding warm air temperatures

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The Science Behind Radiative Cooling

The fundamental physics behind radiative cooling lies in the fact that all objects emit thermal radiation . This phenomenon is described by Planck’s law, which states that the spectral radiance of a body depends on its temperature and emissivity.

Earth’s atmosphere has a “window” between 8-13 μm that allows thermal radiation within this wavelength range to pass through and escape into space . This atmospheric window is primarily due to the low absorption of water vapor and other greenhouse gases in this spectral region. By designing materials that can absorb and emit radiation selectively within the 8-13 μm atmospheric window, while also reflecting solar radiation (0.3-2.5 μm), it is possible to achieve cooling even under direct sunlight .

The key to effective radiative cooling is to maximize the radiative heat loss through the atmospheric window while minimizing the absorption of solar radiation and atmospheric thermal radiation outside the window. Several factors influence the performance of radiative cooling materials and systems:

  • Material emissivity: The emissivity of a material determines its ability to emit thermal radiation. Ideal radiative cooling materials should have high emissivity (close to 1) within the 8-13 μm window and low emissivity outside this range .
  • Solar reflectance: To minimize solar heat gain, radiative cooling materials should have high solar reflectance (>0.9) across the solar spectrum (0.3-2.5 μm). This can be achieved through the use of selective coatings, photonic structures, or metamaterials .
  • Atmospheric conditions: The effectiveness of radiative cooling depends on the atmospheric conditions, such as humidity, cloud cover, and the presence of greenhouse gases. In humid environments, the atmospheric window can be partially blocked, reducing the cooling potential . Conversely, in dry and cold regions, an additional atmospheric window in the 16-25 μm range can further enhance radiative cooling performance .
  • Angular dependence: The emission and absorption properties of radiative cooling materials can vary with the angle of incidence. Ideally, materials should maintain high emissivity within the atmospheric window and high solar reflectance across a wide range of angles to maximize cooling performance .
  • Thermal management: To achieve efficient radiative cooling, it is essential to minimize non-radiative heat transfer, such as conduction and convection. This can be accomplished through the use of insulation, convection shields, or vacuum packaging .

Ongoing research in the field of radiative cooling focuses on developing novel materials and structures that can optimize these factors. Some promising approaches include the use of photonic crystals , metamaterials , and multilayer selective emitters . These advanced materials can be engineered to exhibit the desired spectral and angular properties for efficient radiative cooling.

Modern Breakthroughs in Radiative Cooling

In the 1970s, scientists Trombe and Catalanotti were among the first to propose the concept of daytime radiative cooling, a passive cooling technique that utilizes the atmospheric transparency window (8-13 μm) to dissipate heat from Earth into outer space.

Félix Trombe (1906-1985) was a French engineer best known for his pioneering work in passive solar building design . He is the inventor of the Trombe wall, a passive solar building design element that bears his name . Trombe is also credited with hypothesizing passive daytime radiative cooling in 1967.


Trombe and Catalanotti recognized that Earth’s atmosphere has a “window” between 8-13 μm that allows thermal radiation to pass through and escape into space . By designing materials that can absorb and emit radiation in this specific wavelength range, while also reflecting solar radiation, they hypothesized it would be possible to achieve cooling even under direct sunlight. Their pioneering work laid the foundation for modern radiative cooling research. In 1975, Catalanotti et al. realized a selective surface with optical properties matched to the atmospheric window of 8-13 μm. Compared to a black radiator, this surface showed a greater cooling effect, demonstrating the potential of spectrally selective materials for radiative cooling applications.

Trombe and Catalanotti’s innovative concept was driven by the desire to create passive, energy-efficient cooling solutions that could reduce reliance on conventional air conditioning systems. By harnessing the vast, cold heat sink of outer space, they aimed to develop a sustainable cooling method that could be applied to buildings, solar cells, and other applications. Although the performance of early daytime radiative cooling systems was limited, with temperature reductions of only around 5°C below ambient, the groundbreaking ideas put forth by Trombe and Catalanotti have inspired significant research interest and progress in the field over the past few decades.

Potential Applications and Future Prospects

Potential Applications and Future Prospects

Radiative cooling technology has the potential to revolutionize various sectors, offering sustainable and energy-efficient solutions for cooling and temperature regulation. Some of the most promising applications include building cooling, solar cell efficiency enhancement, climate change mitigation, and even space exploration.

1. Building Cooling
The building sector accounts for a significant portion of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, with a large share attributed to cooling and air conditioning. Radiative cooling materials can be applied to roofs, walls, and windows to passively cool buildings, reducing the reliance on energy-intensive cooling systems.

Researchers have developed various radiative cooling materials for building applications, such as paint-like coatings, polymer films, and photonic structures. These materials can be easily integrated into existing building envelopes and have demonstrated cooling powers of up to 100 W/m^2 under direct sunlight. By reducing the cooling load and energy consumption of buildings, radiative cooling can contribute to significant energy savings and lower carbon emissions.

2. Solar Cell Efficiency Enhancement
Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity, but their efficiency is limited by the heat generated during operation. As solar cells heat up, their performance and lifespan decrease. Radiative cooling can be employed to passively cool solar cells and maintain their optimal operating temperature, thereby improving their efficiency and longevity.

One approach is to integrate radiative cooling materials directly into the solar cell structure, such as in the form of a selective emitter layer. Another strategy is to use radiative cooling devices as heat sinks for solar cells. By dissipating excess heat through the atmospheric window, these techniques can enhance solar cell efficiency by up to several percentage points. This improvement can lead to significant gains in solar energy production and cost-effectiveness.

3. Climate Change Mitigation
Radiative cooling has the potential to contribute to global efforts in mitigating climate change. By providing a passive and energy-efficient means of cooling, this technology can help reduce the reliance on fossil fuel-based cooling systems and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, researchers have proposed the concept of “radiative cooling of the Earth” as a potential geoengineering approach to combat global warming. This involves the large-scale deployment of radiative cooling materials on Earth’s surface, such as in deserts or on rooftops, to reflect more sunlight and emit more thermal radiation into space. While this concept is still in the early stages of research and faces challenges related to feasibility and environmental impacts, it highlights the potential of radiative cooling as a tool for climate change mitigation.

4. Space Applications
Radiative cooling can also play a crucial role in space applications, where managing the temperature of spacecraft, satellites, and space habitats is essential for their proper functioning and the well-being of astronauts. In the vacuum of space, radiative heat transfer is the only mechanism for thermal management.

Spacecraft and satellites can benefit from radiative cooling materials that emit heat in the infrared range, as the cold background of space acts as an ideal heat sink. These materials can be used for passive thermal control, reducing the need for active cooling systems that consume valuable power and add weight to the spacecraft.

Furthermore, future space habitats on the Moon or Mars could utilize radiative cooling materials for temperature regulation. By selectively emitting heat through the atmospheric window or into the cold sky, these materials can help maintain comfortable living conditions for astronauts while minimizing energy consumption.

As research in radiative cooling advances, new materials and designs are being developed to optimize performance, durability, and scalability. Efforts are also being made to integrate radiative cooling with other technologies, such as energy storage systems and smart building controls, to maximize their benefits.

The future prospects of radiative cooling are promising, with the potential to transform the way we approach cooling and temperature regulation in various sectors. As we face the challenges of climate change, energy efficiency, and sustainable development, radiative cooling offers a compelling solution that harnesses the power of the cold universe to create a cooler and more sustainable future on Earth and beyond.