Blubber breakthrough: MIT engineers increase wetsuit survivability

Article by Adam Duckett

From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Jacopo Buongiorno and Michael Strano try out their neoprene wetsuits at a pool at MIT’s athletic center. Cottrill holds the pressure tank used to treat the wetsuits with inert gas

MIT chemical engineer Michael Strano has helped develop a treatment for wetsuits that protects divers in frigid waters.

The collaborative team of scientists and engineers has developed a system that replaces the gas trapped inside a standard wetsuit, so extends the time it can protect divers in cold waters. The project arose after Strano and MIT nuclear science and engineering professor Jacopo Buongiorno met with people across the US military to seek new avenues for research. After meeting a group of Navy Seals – the US military’s special-operations diving corps, they decided to focus on creating longer-lasting protection in icy waters.

Two years on, the team has now developed a treatment that involves placing a standard neoprene wetsuit inside a pressure tank autoclave no bigger than a beer keg, filled with a heavy inert gas, for around 20 hours. This replaces the air trapped in the foam structure of the neoprene with xenon or krypton, dramatically increasing its insulating properties.

They found the method improves survivability in water colder than 10oC, increasing it from less than one hour to as much as three.

The result, they say, is a material with the lowest heat transfer of any wetsuit ever made. “We set a world record for the world’s lowest thermal conductivity garment,” Strano says.

The only current viable alternatives to wetsuits are drysuits which have a layer of air between the suit and the skin that is maintained using a hose and pump, or a warm-water suit which has the same limitations. In either case, a failure of the pump or a tear in the suit can lead to a rapid loss of insulation, with potentially deadly consequences.

The research team say their method overcomes these limitations as the inert gases added to the structure cannot rapidly escape. An alternative use to this technology would be to treat much thinner wetsuits.

“Almost everyone I interviewed also said they wanted a wetsuit that was easier to move around in and to put on and take off,” says co-author and MIT postdoc Jeffrey Moran. “The results of this project suggest that we could make wetsuits that provide the same thermal insulation as traditional ones, but are about half as thick.”

Next steps in the development of the technology include looking to work with partners to gather more performance data, and possibly making a more stable version of xenon-infused neoprene by bonding a protective layer over the suit.

Reacting to the research, John Dabiri, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, who was not involved in this work, said: “Their approach to the problem is a remarkable feat of materials science and also very clever engineering.

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Article by Adam Duckett

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