US Navy research adds warmth to wetsuits

To carry out missions in waters at temperatures less than 50°F (10°C) US Navy SEALs wanted a wetsuit with better thermal properties than those available at present, according to a report in Undercurrent in July. They wanted cold not to be a determining factor so much on how long they could stay down.

As a result researchers at the US Defence Department and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a radical new process which is said to emulate the blubber of seals combined with the pockets of air trapped in the feathers of penguins. They developed a coating for existing wetsuits which triples their thermal properties, and the survival time for the diver wearing one.

The process involves placing thick neoprene wetsuits inside a pressure chamber with a heavy inert gas (xenon or krypton) for 20 hours. The trapped air in the integral bubbles of neoprene is thereby displaced by the gas, with and results in a wetsuit with the lowest heat transfer of any wetsuit.

The drawback is that after treatment the wetsuit must be kept in a sealed bag until it is used and re-treated again before further use The next step in the research is to find a way to make a long term, stable version of the adapted neoprene, perhaps by bonding a protective layer over it.