“Artificial Blubber” Protects Divers in Frigid Water

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July 2, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: July 2 on

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

When Navy SEALs carry out dives in Arctic waters, or when rescue teams are diving under ice-covered rivers or ponds, the survival time even in the best wetsuits is very limited — as little as tens of minutes, and the experience can be extremely painful at best. Finding ways of extending that survival time without hampering mobility has been a priority for the U.S. Navy and research divers, as a pair of MIT engineering professors learned during a recent program that took them to a variety of naval facilities.

That visit led to a two-year collaboration that has now yielded a dramatic result: a simple treatment that can improve the survival time for a conventional wetsuit by a factor of three, the scientists say.

They looked at the 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 simulations and lab tests, they ended up with a combination of two of these — a blubber-like insulating material that also makes use of trapped pockets of gas, although in this case the gas is not air but a heavy inert gas, namely xenon or krypton.

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