Navy SEALs’ new wetsuit boosts cold water survival

Technology |  2 min. read

On November 2, 1931, DuPont introduced to the world – Duprene!

Ok, unless you’re a chemist, that sentence will have you scratching your head: “WHAT, is Duprene, and what’s the big deal about it?”

But ask a surfer, a diver, a Navy SEAL – and THEY will have a ready answer.  Because Duprene changed its name to neoprene, and neoprene is the stuff wetsuits have been made of since the 1950s.

No, not that.

More like this.

Now seventy years is a good run for most things, and you might expect that neoprene would now gracefully fade from the scene, to be replaced by something far more epic.  So, you will be stoked to know that there is new life for neoprene.

Not from chemists this time, but from engineers.  Engineers at MIT, working on the Navy’s behalf, have come up with a way to make neoprene “last” longer.

The Navy wanted a wetsuit that would keep a user (like a SEAL), alive longer in cold water, without being so thick or stiff that the person in the water couldn’t do anything but bob up and down.

What the MIT engineers came up with, was blubber.  Not REAL blubber, but the idea of blubber.  They took a neoprene wetsuit – which is a sort of synthetic rubber foam, filled with little air pockets – and replaced the air in those pockets, with an inert gas (like xenon or krypton).  As science goes, the process is pretty simple:  grab a standard wetsuit off the shelf, put it in a sealed, pressurized container with the gas, and wait about twenty-four hours.

The result?  The time a person could survive in cold water just about tripled, from less than one hour – to as much as three hours.

For a Navy SEAL or a rescue diver, that can be a life-saving difference.  But even for a barney, that can make for a bitchin’ day, no matter how gnarly the waves are.

Where’d that come from?

 By the way, how DuPont got to Duprene in the first place – involves a little history.  This was the time between world wars, and the U.S., like other industrial countries, was looking for ways to replace rubber.  Since rubber trees didn’t grow in the U.S., there was the risk that in wartime, we could be cut off from natural sources of rubber – which, among other things, would mean no tires for jeeps, trucks or planes.

 Duprene/neoprene was cooked up (literally) in that search for synthetic rubber.  Chemically, it started with butylene, which is one of the basic petrochemicals from which so much else is made.  And as a petrochemical, the source of butylene, is crude oil and natural gas.

 In the end, Duprene/neoprene did not replace rubber (other synthetics were developed from butylene to that end), but it turned out to have its own uses, like the wetsuit.