Artificial blubber protects divers in frigid water

MIT engineers develop a way to triple the survival time for swimmers in wetsuits.

Holes in a wetsuit reveal the thickness of the neoprene material. The new MIT-developed treatment could provide the same amount of insulation with just half the thickness, the researchers say. Photo courtesy of the researchers
Holes in a wetsuit reveal the thickness of the neoprene material. The new MIT-developed treatment could provide the same amount of insulation with just half the thickness, the researchers say. Photo courtesy of the researchers

At the point when Navy SEALs do makes a plunge Arctic waters, or when save groups are jumping under ice-shrouded streams or lakes, the survival time even in the best wetsuits is exceptionally constrained. Discovering methods for expanding that survival time without hampering versatility has been a need for the U.S. Naval force and research jumpers, as a couple of MIT engineering professors got the hang of amid an ongoing system that took them to an assortment of maritime facilities.

They have created a new treatment that can increase the survival time for a conventional wetsuit by a factor of three.

Engineers need to place the standard neoprene wetsuit inside a pressure tank autoclave for about a day. The treatment at that point goes on for around 20 hours, far longer than anybody would spend on a jump. The procedure should likewise be possible ahead of time, with the wetsuit put in a fixed pack to be opened just before utilizing.

The findings, which could be applied essentially immediately, are reported this week in the journal RSC Advances, in a paper by Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering; Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor and associate head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering; and five others at MIT and George Mason University.

“We got to visit a lot of bases, and met with all kinds of military people up to four-star generals,” says Buongiorno, whose specialty in nuclear engineering has to do with heat transfer, especially through the water.

From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Professor Jacopo Buongiorno and Professor Michael Strano try out their neoprene wetsuits at a pool at MIT’s athletic center. Cottrill is holding the pressure tank used to treat the wetsuits with xenon or krypton.  Photo courtesy of the researchers
From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Professor Jacopo Buongiorno and Professor Michael Strano try out their neoprene wetsuits at a pool at MIT’s athletic center. Cottrill is holding the pressure tank used to treat the wetsuits with xenon or krypton.
Photo courtesy of the researchers

Engineers then observed different strategies that various animals use to survive in these frigid waters, and found three types: air pockets trapped in fur or feathers, as with otters and penguins; internally generated heat, as with some animals and fish (including great white sharks, which, surprisingly, are warm-blooded); or a layer of insulating material that greatly slows heat loss from the body, as with seals’ and whales’ blubber.

In the end, after reproductions and lab tests, they wound up with a blend of two of these — a lard-like protecting material that additionally makes utilization of caught pockets of gas, despite the fact that for this situation the gas isn’t yet an overwhelming latent gas, to be specific xenon or krypton.

Strano and Buongiorno found that if the trapped air is replaced with xenon or krypton, the material’s insulating properties increase dramatically. The result, they say, is a material with the lowest heat transfer of any wetsuit ever made. “They set a world record for the world’s lowest thermal conductivity garment. This could improve survivability in water colder than 10 degrees Celsius, raising it from less than one hour to two or three hours.

Strano said, “The result could be a boon not just to those in the most extreme environments, but to anyone who uses wetsuits in cold waters, including swimmers, athletes, and surfers, as well as professional divers of all kinds.”

John Dabiri, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering at Stanford University said, “Their approach to the problem is a remarkable feat of materials science and also very clever engineering. We’ve managed to achieve something close to an ideal air-like thermal barrier, and they’ve accomplished this using material that is more compatible with end-uses like scuba diving than previous concepts. The overall performance characteristics could be a game-changer for a variety of applications.”

And Charles Amsler, a professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham said, “It could be very beneficial in cases where flexibility, lack of bulkiness, swimming speed, or reduced drag with diver propulsion vehicles are at a premium, or where environmental hazards make the chance of dive suit puncture high. Normally, diver thermal protection in very cold water is by use of dry suits rather than wetsuits. But wetsuits typically allow much more diver flexibility.”

The research team also included former MIT postdoc Jeffrey Moran Ph.D. ’17, now at George Mason University; MIT graduate students Anton Cottrill and Zhe Yuan; former postdoc Jesse Benck; and postdoc Pingwei Liu. The work was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and the U.S Department of Energy.