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Synthetic 'blubber' could triple divers' survival time in icy water

You could swim like a seal for hours.
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Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Even the hardiest diver can't last longer than an hour in cold water using a modern wetsuit, and that's no good if you're a special ops soldier or otherwise need to stay under the sea for hours at a time. MIT has a simple solution: imitate the blubber that keeps seals and polar bears safe. They've developed an "artificial blubber" that promises to extend swim times in chilly water (under 50F) to as long as three hours. The approach combines a newly processed material with pockets that keep the cold out.

The team starts by placing a typical neoprene wetsuit in an autoclave filled with a heavy gas (such as argon, krypton or xenon for one to three days. The design replaces the usual air gaps in the wetsuit with that heavy gas, giving the material itself a thermal conductivity so low that it's comparable to air. It not only keeps you toastier on long dives, it doesn't require a pump, a warm-water suit or other approaches where a tear could be deadly.

MIT developed the process with the help of the US Navy, and it's easy to see this helping SEALs on covert missions in the Arctic or wintery climates. This could be useful for undersea maintenance crews, long-distance swimmers and even surfers. And it might be helpful even if you aren't diving into frigid waters. Scientists envision wetsuits that offer the same insulation as you get today with a much thinner design. That could be helpful for athletes, or simply diving enthusiasts who want to be more comfortable underwater.

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