Furry Wetsuit Design Inspired by Otters

MIT researchers develop rubbery hair-lined material that traps warm air underwater.

<p>Creative Commons</p>

For the discerning 21st-century surfer, furry otter wetsuits may be the next big thing. You heard it here first.

A team of MIT engineers is working on a potential new kind of wetsuit material that's covered with fine hairs, similar to the pelt of an otter or beaver. In fact, these small water mammals are the direct inspiration for the new material. By trapping small pockets of warm air in their fur, the animals are able to stay warm in arctic conditions without having to pack on bulky blubber.

And that's the essential concept behind MIT's synthetic material. The ultimate goal is to create lighter and warmer wetsuits for people who, like otters, like to split their time in and out of the water -- for instance, surfers.

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"We are particularly interested in wetsuits for surfing," says Anette Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering, on the MIT project page. "Surfers want to be nimble and shed water as quickly as possible when out of the water, but retain the thermal management properties to stay warm when they are submerged."

The research team looked for examples in nature that could address the problem, and eventually latched onto semi-aquatic animals like beavers and sea otters.

"Small mammals that can't carry around a lot of blubber, but still need to maintain warmth, have a very specialized fur that traps air when they dive underwater," Hosoi says in the demo video.

Felice Frankel / MIT

To create the first iterations of their furry wetsuit material, the engineers created molds by laser cutting thousands of tiny holes in blocks of acrylic. The holes were then used to anchor tiny synthetic hairs, with the precise spacing and positioning mapped out by computer software.

When the synthetic pelts were lowered into different types of liquid, video imaging systems mapped out exactly where air pockets developed. From this data, the researchers developed a mathematical model for future designs. The team can now accurately predict how thick an air layer will surround a hairy surface, based on their equation.

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"[This] is the information you need if you're going to design a wetsuit," Hosoi says.

"Of course, you could make a very hairy wetsuit that looks like Cookie Monster and it would probably trap air, but that's probably not the best way to go about it."

The research results were published in the journal Physical Review Fluids. Click on over to the MIT News page for more details.

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