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‘Artificial blubber’ to protect divers in icy water

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and George Mason University in the US developed a simple treatment that can improve the survival time for a conventional wetsuit
by a factor of three. “The process works by simply placing the standard neoprene wetsuit inside a pressure tank autoclave no bigger than a beer keg, filled with a heavy inert gas, for about a day. The treatment then lasts for about 20 hours, far longer than anyone would spend on a dive&quot”, said Jacopo Buongiorno, professor at MIT.

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.
“The process could also be done in advance, with the wetsuit placed in a sealed bag to be opened
just before”, he said.

Researchers 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; or a layer of insulating material that greatly slows heat loss from the body, as with seals’ and whales’ blubber.

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.