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Inert Gas Used to Extend Wetsuit Performance

From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Dr. Jacopo Buongiorno and Dr. 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 heavy inert gasses. (Courtesy photo/Susan Young)
From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Dr. Jacopo Buongiorno and Dr. Michael Strano try out their neoprene wetsuits. Cottrill is holding the pressure tank used to treat the wetsuits with heavy inert gasses. (Courtesy of Susan Young)

By MarEx 2018-09-04 20:28:31

To protect U.S. Navy divers operating in freezing conditions, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) is sponsoring work to design a wetsuit to allow divers to swim in frozen waters for longer periods of time.

Diving in icy water is extremely dangerous to humans. Within seconds, arteries tighten, blood pressure and heart rate race, and lungs gasp for air. After only minutes, hyperventilation strikes and arms and legs go numb - signaling the onset of hypothermia.

The work is being conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and George Mason University. The project is being led by two MIT professors Dr. Michael Strano and Dr. Jacopo Buongiorno and focuses on neoprene wetsuits. Neoprene, a synthetic rubber, is the most common material used to make wetsuits. It resembles a thick foam with numerous air pockets which slow the transfer of heat from the body into the surrounding cold water.

Strano and Buongiorno found that by substituting air with various heavy inert gasses which are non-toxic, don’t have negative chemical reactions and don’t burn or explode they created a more efficient, artificial insulation layer within the wetsuit. This increased suit effectiveness in 10-degree-Celsius water from under an hour to multiple hours.

To do so, Strano and Buongiorno placed a neoprene wetsuit in a sealed, specially designed tank the size of a beer keg and pumped the container with heavy inert gasses for several hours. Laboratory tests showed the newly pressurized wetsuit kept its insulating properties for over 20 hours after treatment, far longer than divers usually spend in frigid waters. The treatment could also be done in advance of a dive, with the wetsuit placed in a bag to be opened just before use. In such cases, the 20-hour countdown wouldn’t start until the suit was removed from the bag.

The research will benefit Navy diver operations as more Arctic sea lanes open up and the Navy increases its readiness and operations such as ship repair and salvage in the region.