A couple of years ago, researchers from MIT created a beaver fur-inspired material that could be used to produce warmer wetsuits. Now, a different group of MIT scientists have devised a process that lets existing wetsuits retain body heat three times longer than normal.
Wetsuits are typically made of closed-cell neoprene foam, a synthetic rubber which is full of tiny pockets of air (which is mainly nitrogen gas). Those pockets are a good form of insulation, due to nitrogen's relatively low thermal conductivity. However, the thermal conductivity of two heavier inert gases, xenon and krypton, is even lower. With that in mind, an MIT team set out to replace the air with either of the two.
Led by professors Michael Strano and Jacopo Buongiorno, the scientists placed a regular 6-mm-thick neoprene wetsuit inside a "beer keg-sized" pressure tank autoclave that was filled with xenon or krypton, then leaving it for about one day. This caused it to become infused with the gas, replacing the air.
As a result, the wetsuit's insulating value was boosted to the point that it could conceivably allow its wearer to survive in water colder than 10 ºC (50 ºF) for two to three hours – by contrast, that time would drop to less than one hour for an "untreated" wetsuit.
The insulating effect lasted for around 20 hours, after which point the xenon/krypton dissipated from the neoprene. That said, a wetsuit could be transferred directly from the autoclave to a sealed bag, and then stored indefinitely before being opened just prior to use. Additionally, the researchers are looking into creating a "permanent" version of the wetsuit, in which the gas would be trapped inside the neoprene via a bonded layer of impervious material.
Along with its use in wetsuits that are the same thickness as regular ones but that provide better insulation, the technology could also be used in wetsuits that have the same insulating value as regular ones, but are thinner. These might be particularly popular with people such as swimmers and surfers, who place a premium on mobility.
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal RSC Advances.
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