Nuclear submarines may seem about as high tech as you can get, but they're really just underwater steam ships with an atomic reactor to boil the water to drive the propeller. Since a superheated steam line rupturing at a depth of 600 ft (183 m) inside a cramped hull is as dangerous as it sounds, the US Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility (NCTRF) are testing a new protective suit to allow submariners to repair steam systems without the danger of a fatal scalding.

In a recent demonstration at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut, two sailors competed to see who could get their steam suit on the fastest. Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Cameron Sebastian donned the current suit, which is composed of firefighter's overalls, boots, and an air tank and breathing apparatus all covered by a HAZMAT-style chemical suit. This took him over four minutes.

Meanwhile, Machinist's Mate 1st Class Nathan Lindner was given the new suit developed as part of the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) TechSolutions Program. The futuristic one-piece silver suit was joined by boots, thick gloves, a face shield, and an external air tank and regulator. Total time to don the suit: a little over two minutes.

The Navy says that the new suit was created using feedback from sailors about what they'd like to see improved over the present suit. The result is one that is as protective as the decade-old one, but is 9 lb (4 kg) lighter, is easier to put on, and provides more mobility. In addition, the breathing apparatus is on the outside, meaning that the air tank can be recharged or replaced without having to take the suit off. There are also gel-packs included in the suit to keep the wearer cool.

Another point of innovation is the gloves. The current suit uses mittens, but they restrict the wearer's dexterity, so they've been replaced with "lobster claw" gloves that look like something off a science fiction monster. This two-finger-and-thumb design makes it easier to handle tools and controls and climb ladders, and they have leather fabric palms to allow the wearer to wipe steam condensation off the face shield.

The next step for the improved suit will be at-sea testing aboard the nuclear attack submarine USS Toledo and two other boats. After modifications from these tests are incorporated in the final design, the suit is expected to be general issue in about two years.

"Our goal was to create a lighter suit that enables users to get around better, quicker and easier," says Bob Bassett, NAVSEA's branch head for in-service submarine propulsion and electrical systems. "It's an all-around improved suit, and we can't wait to get feedback from the Sailors after the trials."

The new steam suit is demonstrated in the video below.