Leopard seal bobbing on cold waters

Engineers create ‘artificial blubber’ wetsuits to protect divers in cold waters

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a technique for transforming wetsuits into “artificial blubber”, allowing divers to remain in frigid water for three times longer than was previously possible.

There are numerous jobs and activities which require people to throw themselves into inhospitably cold waters: marine biologists exploring frigid waters, Navy SEALS diving into the Arctic Sea, or rescue teams swimming under the ice. Even if wrapped in a top-of-the-range insulating wetsuit, this can be dangerous and the survival time can be as little as tens of minutes.

Following a visit to US Naval facilities, a pair of MIT engineers – one of whom is an avid swimmer – were asked to work on fulfilling unspecified technological needs at the facilities and ended up collaborating for two years on a technique to transform conventional wetsuits into gear that dramatically lengthens the survival time of the wearer in cold waters.

The two engineers began by looking at how various animals survive under these conditions and identified three main methods: air pockets (used by otters and penguins), internally generated heat (used by great white sharks and other fish) or a fatty layer of insulation (used by seals and whales).

The researchers decided to combine two methods, insulating divers with a blubber-like material which makes use of gas pockets trapped within neoprene.

This can be done by placing the wetsuit inside a small pressure tank filled with a heavy, inactive gas – such as xenon or krypton – for 20 hours. This results in pockets of inert gas filling more than two-thirds of the volume of the material, increasing the insulating properties of the neoprene to almost as low as air and allowing the wearer to survive for three times longer in water cooler than 10°C.

“We set a world record for the world’s lowest thermal conductivity wetsuit,” said Professor Michael Strano, one of the MIT engineering professors behind the project. “It’s like wearing a coat of air.”

As well as being far more insulating than conventional wetsuits, the treated wetsuit has several advantages over dry suits (diving suits which maintain a layer of air between skin and suit using a pump), such as continuing to provide insulation when damaged.

Having developed this method for adapting wetsuits for longer dives, the researchers are looking into the possibility of creating thinner wetsuits with the same properties, or longer-term, stable wetsuits which maintain their super-insulating properties for longer with a protective layer.

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