If you're decommissioning a nuclear site, it would be nice to be able to call on Iron Man. But since he's a comic book character, researchers at the University of Bristol are proposing the next best thing – an armored exoskeleton that would protect workers from radioactive contamination, while also reducing fatigue and providing vital information through helmet-mounted augmented reality displays.
Working in radioactive environments like decommissioned nuclear reactors or fuel reprocessing plants is one of those jobs were safety is right at the top of the list. Though modern facilities have a high degree of automation, robotics, and remote operating systems, sometimes a human being has to be on the scene to do the job that the machines can't handle.
The question is, how to protect them? It's one that the University of Bristol is very keen to answer. It has been working with the Sellafield nuclear company since 2013 on finding better ways of managing the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria, England, as well as developing safer, less expensive reactor decommissioning technologies.
Current protective suits are made of PVC with air fed into them by hoses, which work very well because the type of radioactive materials that the workers come into contact with are generally of low enough intensity that the plastic is quite enough to act as a shield. The main purpose of the suit is to prevent the person inside becoming contaminated or, worse, breathing radioactive particles in.
However, the suits also get very hot and the workers can only wear them for a short time before they start to suffer from heat exhaustion. Imagine putting on a wetsuit, paint mask, and safety goggles, then going out to mow the lawn, and you'll get some idea of what the workers are faced with.
Taking inspiration from the fictional Tony Stark's brainchild, the Bristol team led by Professor Tom Scott see Iron Man-like armor as a potential solution. It may not be able to fly, nor can it fire missiles or repulsor beams (yet), but the idea is that a wearable exoskeleton made out of composite materials would have a host of advantages over the present kit.
One obvious benefit is that the armor would provide better protection against both radiation and physical hazards. In addition, the exoskeleton could help reduce fatigue and could even be powered to make it easier to carry things or to work in cramped, awkward positions. It could also have a proper cooling system, so it could be worn for extended periods, and the composite shell would be easier to decontaminate than the soft plastics, which dirty easily and must be thrown away as low-level nuclear waste.
Other technologies that the suit might incorporate are augmented reality helmet displays to provide context specific data, eye trackers to detect fatigue, and hand-mounted radiation counters. The electronics could even be printed into the suit to avoid the need to wire it.
The team is currently engaged in a feasibility study of such a suit and will report to Sellafield Ltd and Innovate UK next year. If approved the next step will be to develop a working prototype.
"Our concept has comparisons with how space suits were developed in the 1950s," says Scott. "Space and nuclear are both safety-critical industries. Just as space suits enabled transformational outcomes, making it possible for humans to go into space, further development of our suit could result in game-changing improvements in decommissioning safety and performance at Sellafield. The suit could even be used at other nuclear decommissioning sites across the world, consistent with Government aims for the UK to be a global leader and established exporter of waste management and decommissioning markets solutions."
The video below gives a tour of the conceptual Iron Man suit.
Source: University of Bristol
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